Italy's 5 Future Goalkeeping Stars
Italy consistently manage to produce top-quality goalkeepers; it is part of their DNA. It is perhaps unthinkable to imagine the Azzurri without one. Now, as one of their greatest looks to be performing his swan song, the nation can take pride over its new breed of shot-stoppers.
Gianpiero Combi was one of the trailblazers in the Italian art of goalkeeping, winning the 1934 World Cup with the national team. He is still classed as one of Italy's greatest of all time, playing his entire career with Juventus. At this time, he was greatly pushed by Carlo Ceresoli, who played in the memorable "Battle of Highbury" as another superb custodian.
Valerio Bacigalupo was another excellent Italian shot-stopper, fronting the Il Grande Torino team of the 1940s. They swept all before them and are remembered fondly, especially after their tragic end in the Superga disaster.
Bacigalupo was followed by Enrico "Ricky" Albertosi, who was the national keeper in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups. He won the Scudetto with Cagliari as well as being involved in the "Game of the Century" in Mexico 1970, pulling off save after save.
From 1968 until 1983, Dino Zoff—arguably Italy's greatest goalkeeper ever—played 112 times for his national team. Captaining his team to a World Cup Final win in 1982 was his greatest achievement. He was voted the third best goalkeeper of the last century after Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks, high praise indeed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Italy boasted the best league in the world and had the goalkeepers to match. Walter Zenga had a superb Italia 90, whilst Angelo Peruzzi, Gianluca Pagliuca and Francesco Toldo all amazed their public.
Gianluigi Buffon is the most recent to fall off Italy's conveyor belt of goalkeeping excellence. A World Cup winner in 2006, he has consistently performed well, mostly at Juventus where he still plies his trade. Seen as a competitor to both Combi and Zoff as Italy's greatest, he has big gloves to fill.
This challenge has been put on a new breed of goalkeeper, and once again Italy have their future stars between the pipes.
Francesco Bardi is 22 years of age and 6'2". He is signed with Inter and is tipped to be Samir Handanovic's replacement.
Bardi was born in Livorno, and it is therefore no surprise that he was loaned out to them in 2011-12 and again for this season. He had a spell in Novara in between and has performed admirably at both clubs.
His main strengths are his positional play, confidence and decision making. He may not be as spectacular as some of his youthful rivals, but he excels in the basics. His ability to be in the right place at the right time is second to none, and although he does not charge out of his goal in the style of Hugo Lloris, when he does, he makes sure he gets the ball. He also has a knack for saving penalties and is rarely beaten from set pieces.
He has played at national levels from U17 to U21 and is a safe bet for both Inter and Italy in the future.
On February 1, 17-year-old Simone Scuffet replaced the injured Zeljko Brkic against Bologna. Since that day, Serie A watchers have not stopped talking about this 6'1" keeper.
Unlike many of the other heirs apparent to Buffon's crown, Scuffet was the dark horse, mainly because nobody knew who he was. Whilst others were plying their trade with Serie B teams in their early 20s, Scuffet went straight in at Udinese.
The main strengths in his game are his "no fear" youthful approach and incredible reach. The young keeper's fitness needs also mentioning as it allows him to be tenacious. His positioning does not even need to be perfect as he will dive again and again until he gets the ball. The huge promise for him is that positioning can be taught; the rest is natural.
If you dismiss the ridiculous argument that he must be good because he has a double "F" in his name, like Zoff and Buffon, and instead focus on his agility and reactions, you can see promise. He is by no means world class, as we have yet to see how he reacts to a run of bad form, but his potential is incredible.
Mattia Perin has been tipped as Genoa and Italy's great hope. The 21-year-old has already racked up 31 appearances for the Rossoblu and has already received his first call-up for the Italian senior team by head coach Cesare Prandelli for the friendly match against England.
Perhaps Buffon's most serious contender for his No. 1 spot, Perin has been on Genoa's books since 2008. After loan spells at Padova and Pescara, the 6'2" stopper has now established himself as the main man in Genoa's goal.
He has many qualities that could propel him into the history books. His handling on crosses is superb, his distribution immense, and his decision making is instantaneous. Add to this his incredible spring (especially from a standing start), and it is clear to see why he may soon be looked at as a natural replacement for Italy's No. 1 spot.
Perin may also attract interest from some of Italy's bigger clubs if he continues in this manner. It could be argued that if Scuffet also continues his form, then Perin and the aforementioned goalkeeper will be a huge part of Italy's future for a long time to come.
Nicola Leali is another 6'2" 21-year-old with huge potential. Although not yet plying his trade in the top flight yet, he has a good excuse.
Signed by Juventus from Brescia in 2012, he quote literally is in Buffon's shadow. With Juventus storming ahead in Serie A again this season, it was unlikely they would promote him to supreme deputy just yet.
Loaned out to Virtus Lanciano and now Spezia Calcio, Leali is gaining crucial experience as he hopes to compete for the No. 1 position at arguably Italy's biggest club. Having represented the national team from U17 to U21, there is no reason that he may not do this on a bigger scale still.
What differentiates him from the other keepers is his knack of being comfortable judging and diving at balls straight down his throat. This is a tricky thing for a keeper, and it is rare to find one so adept at both. His unparalleled ability, however, is his shot-stopping. He is a natural, and his amazing reflexes provide him with a back catalogue of saves that are not just important but also look great.
He may not be as well-known as the other three, but he may end up with the biggest future.
Mirko Pigliacelli is a Roman-born goalkeeper and a dark horse who may impress Serie A in the future. His record of always being around the Italian youth setup also gives him hope of one day competing on a much bigger stage.
He started his career at Roma before being sold to Parma in 2012 on a free transfer. Since then, he has spent time at Pescara and now keeps goal at Reggina, where he has been making a name for himself and will be attracting glances from Serie A's top clubs.
With Italian credentials right through from the U17 level, this relatively small 6'0" goalkeeper has a lot to offer. He is the all-rounder of the group: vocal, confident, aware of his surroundings and with a knack for stopping one-on-one situations. He has saved Reggina more than once this term.
If Genoa can play Perin and Udinese can play Scuffet, there is no reason that Pigliacelli wont be in the top flight soon.