Despite whatever decline Serie A has witnessed over the past few years, Italian football remains bursting with young talent. Mauro Icardi and Paul Pogba are just two of many players 21 years of age or younger who look primed to either make their league breakthrough in 2013-14 or continue to demonstrate maturity well beyond their years.
Here's a look at five youngsters who look likely to shine in Serie A this upcoming season.
Saponara had his breakthrough in Serie B last season and with Italy's U-21 side that reached the final of the European Championship this summer, ultimately losing out to Spain.
The former Empoli attacking-midfielder was snatched up by Milan after demonstrating his talents for both club and country. Besides playing a key role during the Euros, he helped Empoli to promotion from Serie B with 11 goals and 14 assists.
With his displays, Saponara has demonstrated that the traditional "trequartista" is not an obsolete class of players, that despite the modern game favoring stronger box-to-box midfielders, the advanced playmaker still has a role to play.
Upon signing for Milan, the 21-year-old admitted getting in the starting lineup wouldn't be easy with the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng already proven in the attacking-midfield role, and with Alessandro Diamanti increasingly linked with the club.
Saponara said, as quoted by Rossoneri Blog:
It would be fantastic to be a starter at Milan, but I could also learn a lot by having Boateng and Diamanti in front of me...I will show up at Milan with the utmost humility in order to grow and improve, and then it will be up to Allegri to decide."
But, should the deal with Diamanti fall through, with Saponara's talent at his disposal Max Allegri might very well decide to use Boateng in a deeper or wider role.
If he's given the chance, Saponara certainly won't disappoint.
Onazi had a true breakthrough for Lazio this past season, making 14 appearances and scoring one goal. With space in midfield opening up due to Cristian Brocchi's continued injury problems, the 20-year-old Nigerian International did not disappoint.
In Brocchi's absence, alongside Cristian Ledesma and Hernanes, Onazi played a key role in the second half of the season, bulking up Lazio's already stubborn defense and providing endless energy in the center of the pitch.
A box-to-box midfielder with pace and tenacity, Onazi's already proven himself to Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic and Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi.
He's without a doubt one of the best younger players you've probably never heard of, as Ed Dove of B/R reports.
Missing out on the Confederations Cup due to injury will only inspire him further, and thanks to Brocchi's retirement and Stefano Mauri's embroilment with match-fixing allegations, a starting spot in the Lazio lineup seems all but certain.
And deservedly so.
Mattia De Sciglio
Although his confidence waned somewhat in the second half of last season, Mattia De Sciglio demonstrated his talent and consistency with a starting spot in Italy's National Team during their third-place finish during the Confederations Cup.
A youth prospect of the Milan academy, De Sciglio has shown not only maturity but also versatility.
"Playing right or left is no problem for me...I'm not bad with my left foot." he said, as quoted by FIFA.
His ability to play on either wing means he'll likely continue to find a place in the starting lineup, much to the chagrin of Ignacio Abate (who plays quite consistently on the left).
Although De Sciglio himself has played down comparisons of him to the legendary Paolo Maldini, it's not wrong to say his rise as a footballer is anything short of remarkable.
In April, 2012 he made his Serie A debut. Less than a year later, in March, 2013, he was already called up for the National Team.
Icardi was Sampdoria's lifeline last season, scoring 11 goals in 33 appearances and warranting a switch to giants Inter.
A spot in Inter's strike force will not come easy with the likes of Ishak Belfodil signing from Parma and Rodrigo Palacio demonstrating his consistent eye for goal. Diego Milito, meanwhile, will still be attempting to regain his form, although Icardi's competition will more likely come against the former two.
But Icardi seems rightfully undeterred by the other strikers in the squad or by the hefty fee that was paid to acquire him.
He is, after all, a legend in the making, or so Mike Whittaker of ESPNFC declares.
Walter Mazzari, meanwhile, has already revealed his confidence in Argentinian striker. As Icardi said, in quotes given to Football Italia:
Mazzarri promised me I’ll be important for Inter and I hope that I don’t let him down. Taking on the Number 9 is an important challenge at a side like Inter, but I am not afraid. I want to score many goals and help fight for the Scudetto.
With Mazzari's confidence, Icardi has all but ensured his place in the starting lineup. Once there, he'll likely pose as one of Serie A's top strikers this year.
Like Onazi, Icardi and De Sciglio, Paul Pogba's breakthrough last season points to this year as his time to shine.
Andrea Pirlo, after all, can't last forever.
With Marco Verratti, the only other true heir to Pirlo still at Paris Saint-Germain and with Luca Marrone still not convincing as a deep-lying playmaker, Pogba will be stepping up for Juventus this season in the biggest possible way.
And, even if Pirlo continues to go strong through most of the season, Pogba has demonstrated he's capable of playing alongside the living legend and can only continue to benefit from this experience.
What remains to be seen is how manager Antonio Conte will include Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal in the setup. But, with Pogba's performances last season, the French international should find less trouble making the starting lineup, and perhaps Marchisio will have to be the one to make way when Pirlo is fit to play.
After already tasting glory with Juventus, Pogba's maturity and class has only grown this summer, winning the Under-20 World Cup with France.
His role for Juventus will be nothing but fundamental this year.
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