Juventus: A Progress Report on the Bianconeri's on-Loan Strikers
For two years Juventus searched for top-notch strikers to complete their powerful team. This summer, they finally acquired Fernando Llorente (on a Bosman) and Carlos Tevez (for a song from Manchester United).
While those acquisitions were necessary in the short term, over the long term it's entirely possible that neither one will be leading the line for the Bianconeri.
Juventus has a stake in no fewer than six high-quality forwards no older than 23. All six are away from the club on loans or co-ownership deals. The group includes a Serie B leading scorer and a pair of players who led teams to promotion to the top flight.
Any or all of these six players can secure Juve's front line for years to come, and fans are anxious to see how they can contribute if and when they return to Juventus Stadium.
Let's take a look at how these young strikers are progressing at their loan clubs and see just how close they are to featuring for Juventus.
Loan Club: Elche (Spain)
The only player on this list who plays on a team outside of Italy, Boakye was discovered by Genoa after playing a youth tournament in Vicenza. The Ghanaian made his Serie A debut in April of 2010, coming on for an injured David Suazo and scoring the opening goal of a 1-1 draw with Livorno.
He spent the next year on loan at Sassuolo, where he scored 10 times and attracted the attention of Juventus. The Bianconeri signed him and immediately sent him back to Sassuolo, where he bettered his goal output with 11 in 31 matches.
This season the striker was sent to newly promoted Elche, who were playing their first La Liga season in 24 years. In 18 games (nine starts) he has scored three goals and assisted another.
The highlight of his season so far was an equalizer against Real Madrid in September. Coming on as a sub close to the half-hour mark, Boakye fired home a near-post header in the first minute of stoppage time, seemingly claiming a shock draw. A late penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo denied Elche a point, but the goal capped a good start for the striker, who had scored twice in the season's first four games.
Boakye has fallen on rough times since, scoring only once, but he is still showing great promise. A period of adjustment is to be expected for a young player getting his first action in a top-flight league—especially if his team has only scored 19 goals and is two points from the drop zone.
Boakye needs some time to progress. A loan next year to a mid-table Serie A club might be a good way to get him to the next stage of his development. An ideal place would be somewhere like Parma, where Boakye would have Antonio Cassano and Amauri to take the pressure off him as the main scoring options and allow him to just play soccer.
Boakye is a fast striker with plenty of potential but probably needs another year or so on loan before he can break into Juve's first team.
Loan Team: Sassuolo
Simone Zaza is a bit like an attacking version of Giorgio Chiellini. He is often seen whizzing around the field, tracking back to contribute on defense, diving into some hard-nosed tackles and picking up the occasional booking.
That last part is actually something that the 22-year-old needs to work on. He has five yellow cards this season and one red—a large number for a forward not named Mario Balotelli.
His offensive contribution to Sassuolo—where he was loaned after being bought from Sampdoria in the summer—has been excellent for such a minnow of a team. The Neroverdi are in their first-ever top-flight season but have navigated the first half of the campaign quite well. They have avoided falling into the trap that Pescara did a year ago, and rather than allowing themselves to be buried by February they have set themselves up to be in the thick of the relegation fight.
Helping them along has been Zaza's five goals, second on the team. Most often playing as the target man in a 4-3-3, he has begun to develop an excellent chemistry with fellow Juventus loanee Domenico Berardi—who we'll get to a bit later.
Zaza exudes the kind of grinta (grit) that Juve manager Antonio Conte loves. He makes excellent defensive contributions and has the aerial ability—he wins 2.2 aerial duels per game according to statistics website WhoScored.com—to become an excellent target man and striker.
He could see time on the fringes of Juve's roster by next season, but a more likely scenario is that he'll be loaned out at least one more time to a team a bit higher up the table before he takes a firm place in the Juve setup.
Loan Club: Bari
The above video of Stefano Beltrame's play for Juve's Primavera side is the best taste one can have of the 20-year-old academy product. Beltrame has been making waves in the Juve youth system for a while now and impressed Antonio Conte enough to give him a spot on the subs' bench several times last season.
He even made his Serie A debut on January 26 in a game at Genoa. Thrown into a 1-1 draw with eight minutes left the youngster very nearly won the game, but his fierce strike was clawed away with difficulty by Sebastian Frey (skip to the 1:44 mark of this Sky Sport highlight video to see it).
Sent to Bari on loan this year, Beltrame hasn't gotten consistent game time and remains a work in progress. Expect a year or two more of loans, possibly to one of the teams that makes it up from Serie B next year—so long as that club pledges to give the youngster some work.
Loan Club: Sampdoria
Manolo Gabbiadini scored six times on loan with Bologna a year ago and has already equaled that total this year on a co-ownership deal with Sampdoria.
Gabbiadini is one of the most Juve-ready players on this list. Fast, good in the air and possessed of a cannon from range, he has steadily improved since Sinisa Mihajlovic took over the reins at Samp on Nov. 20. Playing on the right side of a three-man line just behind the main striker, Gabbiadini has racked up half his goals and all of his assists since the Serb took over the manager's office—including two goals and two assists in his last three games.
Gabbiadini is also a fully capped international and led 12 times in 24 appearances during his three years with Italy's U21 team. This summer he was a key member of the team that went to the final of the U21 European Championships in Israel. He led the team with six goals in qualifying—good for joint-seventh in the entire competition—then scored two more in the tournament proper.
His key to being given a look for Juve's main roster next season is the versatility he has shown since moving out to the right in Mihajlovic's system. If he can show he can play on the right wing and consistently contribute, it will make him enormously attractive to Antonio Conte. The coach has been looking for personnel to fit into a 4-3-3 formation that will give him vital tactical flexibility next year, and if Gabbiadini can prove his worth on the right wing in such a formation he wouldn't have to spend money to find one.
Even if he doesn't prove to be a full-time option in that role, Gabbiadini has improved to the point where Juve should seriously consider giving him first-team minutes next season.
Loan Club: Torino
Last season's co-ownership with Genoa was a disappointment for Ciro Immobile. A year removed from being named Serie B Player of the Year for scoring 28 goals on loan at Pescara, he managed only five as the Grifone barely survived the relegation fight.
Mitigating factors for his performance a year ago can be found everywhere. Everyone struggled at Genoa last year—they finished 17th for the second season in a row. His goalscoring binge at Pescara took place under manager Zdenek Zeman, who seems to consider defending an optional part of soccer.
Still, the drop-off was pronounced, and the 2013-14 season had the ring of a make-or-break year for Immobile. It got off on the right foot with a good performance in the U21 European Championships and has taken off since he moved from Genoa to Torino.
In 18 games—15 starts—Immobile has scored 10 times, good for a share of fourth place in the league with teammate Alessio Cerci and Inter's Rodrigo Palacio. Last weekend's game against Atalanta broke a string of four straight games with a goal, including a brace in the Granata's 4-1 win against Chievo.
His success can be attributed to an uncanny ability to get his shots on target. He's put 44.8 percent of his shots on frame this season.
Immobile has teamed with Cerci to form Torino's best strike team since they last won the Scudetto in 1975-76. His performance has prompted fans to imagine him back in black and white, and he could very well become a big part of Juve's future forward line.
With so many good forwards in the pipeline, there is bound to be a numbers game. Immobile's partnership with Cerci has been so successful that Torino may try to keep him, but if Juve holds any of his rights by the end of the summer transfer window, expect him to be on the first team.
Loan Club: Sassuolo
Domenico Berardi is the youngest player on this list but arguably the one with the best chance of being on the field for Juventus next year.
Berardi turned heads a year ago when he scored 11 times in helping the Neroverdi to their first-ever promotion to the top flight.
This year in Serie A he's already surpassed that. His penalty against Livorno was his 12th goal this season, pulling him ahead of Carlos Tevez in the race for capocannoniere.
Berardi has scored a pair of hat-tricks this year. He put in three away to Sampdoria in a 4-3 win in November, then scored four in a famous win against AC Milan in Sassuolo's last match of the andata (first half of the season).
Critics can point to the high number of penalties in Berardi's goal total—five, to be exact—but this can go both ways. On the one hand, Berardi can be accused of padding his total from the spot. On the other, Sassuolo trusts a player as young as Berardi with the responsibility of being their primary penalty-taker.
Furthermore, Berardi's four-goal performance against Milan was a master class, as all four came from open play. His first goal came from an acute angle after slipping through Milan's back line and receiving a long diagonal ball from Jasmin Kurtic. His second was taken from an even crazier position, taking his own rebound off of Daniele Bonera and firing a shot into the near corner.
Goal No. 3 came when he again slipped Milan's line and slammed a first-timer past a helpless Christian Abbiati on an overhead ball from Alessandro Longhi. Kurtic was again the provider two minutes after the half, with Berardi latching onto his grounded cross and hitting a first-time shot that was deflected into the goal.
Berardi is equally effective on either wing and in the center. Naturally left-footed, his ability on the left of a three-man front line must be tantalizing to Conte, who could use all the wing help he can get as he tries to transition to a more usable 4-3-3. The rest of Berardi's rights will be more expensive than the first half, but if he's not on Juventus' roster next year, it would be a huge surprise.