Tracking the Development of Italy's Top Youth Prospects
Italy has a full slate of international competition ahead of its national teams this summer, and its youth level is no exception.
While the senior team plays two friendlies, five World Cup qualifiers, and travels to Brazil to compete in the Confederations Cup, the U-21 team will have the equally important task of competing in the biennial UEFA U-21 European Championships in Israel.
These Azzurrini feature an abundance of players with a real chance to make it big on the international level and propel Italy into a golden era for the next decade or so. Some have already begun making their mark for the senior squad, others aren't in the regular mix but shouldn't be ignored.
Here is a look at five major prospects who aspire to wear the Savoy blue on the senior level on a full-time basis. All five are on the provisional roster for the U-21 Euros. All have been capped at the senior level at least once—but no more than three times. All played top-tier soccer this past season, either in Italy or abroad. And, hopefully, all will be looking to make their marks with the senior team by the time the 2018 World Cup comes around.
Florenzi debuted for the senior team in November against France.
Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Junior Caps (U-21 only): 13 (4 goals)
Senior Caps: 2
The 22-year-old Alessandro Florenzi started the season off with a bang at Roma, scoring in two of his first three games and notching two assists in the four after that.
His statistics tailed off since then—one goal and three assists from round nine to the end of the season—but he played in 36 games and started 25, establishing himself as a big part of Roma's future.
A passing midfielder who can play as an attacking mid or a deeper position, Florenzi looks like he has all it takes to be the team's next regista. He completed 50 percent of his through balls this season, nearly 80 percent of his passes, and averaged more than one key pass per game.
At the international level, Florenzi has picked up a pair of caps for Cesare Prandelli at the senior level, and impressed when he came on as a substitute in February's tilt against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. For the juniors, he's scored four times in 13 matches, including what turned out to be the decider in the second leg of the qualification playoff for the European Championships.
Roma's season was a disappointment, but most agree that they're well set up for the future. Florenzi is one of the biggest reasons why. He could also end up being the long-term replacement for club teammate Daniele De Rossi in the national-team setup at central midfield alongside this man...
Marco Verratti: Is he finally the Next Pirlo Italy has been searching for?
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
Club: Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Position: Deep-lying central midfielder
Junior Caps: 3
Senior Caps: 3 (1 goal)
Italy has been searching for the next Andrea Pirlo for the better part of a decade. They may have finally found their man in Marco Verratti.
After leading Pescara to the Serie B title and their first berth in Serie A since the 1992-93 season, the diminutive midfielder attracted interest from Italian champions Juventus—where Pirlo, his idol, plays—but the bianconeri were pipped to his signature by French nouveau riche side Paris Saint-Germain.
PSG fans had waited since 1992-93 for a Ligue 1 title, but with Verratti keying things in the back of the midfield, the Parc des Princes was able to celebrate the club's third championship this season. Verratti's season was productive. He notched four assists and completed 89.2 percent of his passes over the course of the season.
His main problem has been discipline—he garnered 10 yellow cards and a red in the league and another three yellow cards in the Champions League. That issue should iron out. Verratti is only 20 years old and still growing into his body. When he fills out, his tackling should become less awkward.
Due to his high profile as Pirlo's potential successor and the fact that he's held his own in high-level competitions like the Champions League, Verratti has somewhat bypassed the junior level, claiming only three caps with the Azzurrini while taking an equal number with Cesare Prandelli's senior squad.
He has yet to play a competitive game, but in three friendlies he's looked impressive. After debuting as a substitute in August against England, he capably directed the Italian attack as a starter against France before relinquishing the regista position to its current owner for the end phase of the game. In February he bundled a ball over the line in stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 draw for an Italian team that had been thoroughly outplayed.
Verratti is likely ticketed for the U-21s this year to give him more minutes—he would likely be sitting on the bench at the Confederations Cup. But the young playmaker has shown that he's capable of pulling the strings, and with Andrea Pirlo retiring from international competition after the World Cup the keys to the team's midfield will likely be handed to him sooner rather than later.
Gabbiadini could be part of the answer to Juventus' striking needs.
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Club: Juventus (loaned to Bologna 2012-13)
Junior Caps: 19 (10 goals)
Senior Caps: 1
Lost in the never-ending conversations about Juventus' need for a striker is this youngster.
Gabbiadini scored six times in 30 games this year, finding his way to the starting XI 19 times. The youngster was never the main option in Bologna—that honor fell to Alberto Gilardino—but he showed a lot of promise and if he reaches his potential could go a long way towards solving Juve's goalscoring woes.
Beyond his club form this year, his play for the Azzurrini has been outstanding. He was joint-seventh in the scoring table in qualifying for the U-21 Euros with six goals in seven games, including a hat-trick against Liechtenstein and a brace against Hungary.
Overall he's scored 10 times in 19 games for the U-21s, a clip of better than a goal every two games. It may be time for Juventus to throw him out in the black and white shirt to see if he can replicate that form against top competition. If his form for the Azzurrini can be replicated against senior-level competition, Italy will enjoy a wonderful three-deep strike force along with Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.
With Cavani's potential departure, Insigne is going to have to shoulder more of a load at the club level. Will it help him when he wears the blue?
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Position: Striker/Attacking midfielder
Junior Caps: 11 (6 goals)
Senior Caps: 1
After two impressive loan spells in which he scored 19 times for Foggia in the Lega Pro and 18 for Pescara in Serie B, Napoli decided it was time for Insigne to stay at the San Paolo.
The 21-year-old rewarded them with five goals and nine assists between the Serie A and Europa League. He's been deployed in a variety of ways, including as an attacking midfielder and a central striker (from where he's gotten the majority of his assists) but was more of a sub this year for Walter Mazzari. Of his 37 games played this season, he started 21 of them on the bench.
Insigne is the only player on this list who has played in an official competition for the senior side. His lone cap came against Malta in World Cup qualifying this past September. He's scored six times out of 11 matches for the Azzurrini, playing mostly in a midfield role rather than as a forward. His versatility is a huge advantage for him. If Cesare Prandelli can play him in multiple ways, it will increase his likelihood of getting on the coach's team sheet.
Insigne could make even more of a case for himself this coming season. If Napoli does indeed sell Edinson Cavani—the latest rumors from The Guardian have him going to Chelsea—Insigne will be asked to shoulder even more of the load than he was offered this season when he was part of a team that was to offset the loss of Ezequiel Lavezzi. If he has success, he will be a part of the national-team picture more regularly.
Borini has struggled with injuries this season, but showed an eye for goal in his one full international game.
Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Club: Liverpool (England)
Junior Caps: 15 (4 goals)
Senior Caps: 1
Fabio Borini was slowed by injuries in his first year at Liverpool, but he's a quick young striker who is a good finisher and capable of menacing any keeper.
Cesare Prandelli saw enough of him last year in the midst of a nine-goal season to give him his first senior cap as a second-half substitute against the United States, and Borini came very close to tying the game, hitting the target with two of his four shots, according to ESPN FC, and only being prevented from opening his account for his country by some superb saves by American goalkeeper Tim Howard.
The forward has already proven he has the qualities to be a leader—he was named captain of the U-19 team when they competed in the 2010 European Championship.
Borini's development has hit a snag with his injuries, but Liverpool may move Luis Suarez this year—although the Mirror has passed along a report from the Sun saying Suarez wants to stay. If he does go, it would put Borini in position to back up Daniel Sturridge on the Reds' forward line. If he has a good season he could very well muscle his way back into the discussion for Prandelli's side. If not, he will be on the outside looking in from the striking picture.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com unless otherwise indicated.