Last Saturday in Manaus, England could consider themselves unfortunate to lose their opening match of the World Cup to Italy, turning in a performance that bodes well for the future. Perhaps the only weakness in their display came down the left flank, Leighton Baines left unprotected by those ahead of him, as both Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney failed to help the Everton full-back.
As the rotating forwards neglected their defensive duties, the Azzurri ruthlessly exposed the space it created, with Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian combining to terrorise Baines. The England man was constantly faced with the option of tracking the former or closing down the latter, a choice to which there was simply no right answer.
As such, Candreva was a threat throughout the game, providing a steady stream of shots and crosses in what was an impressive display. While the Lazio midfielder hit the post in the first half before setting up Mario Balotelli’s 50th-minute winner, it was arguably his running mate on the right flank who was most impressive for Italy.
Making his competitive international debut, the 24-year-old Torino defender was superb at both ends of the pitch. His performance is likely to see him attract attention this summer, and having already sold Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile to Borussia Dortmund, his club will perhaps struggle to keep hold of the newest Azzurri star.
“I didn’t expect Matteo Darmian to be so decisive at these levels, but he really impressed me,” Italy legend Sandro Mazzola told Mediaset (h/t FootballItalia).
The defender’s name being among the starting XI surprised many, and just a few weeks ago the player himself was unsure of even being in the squad, telling a press conference late last month (per FIFA.com):
I don't know if I will go to Brazil, but I will give everything to impress Prandelli and make his choice all the more difficult. I'm working very hard. If I'm honest, at the start of the season I wouldn't have thought I could be a part of the national team.
In that same interview, he had stated his hopes of following in the footsteps of Antonio Cabrini, a full-back who made his own bow for Italy against France in the opening game of the 1978 World Cup. Like Darmian, Juventus defender Bell’Antonio impressed, despite his lack of experience, eventually being named Best Young Player at the tournament.
If the younger man can achieve half of what Cabrini accomplished during his stellar career, he will have much to be proud of, but Darmian has begun to steadily realise the promising talent evident from a young age. Growing up in the youth sector at Milan, he was coached early in his career by Franco Baresi and the father of his Italy team-mate Ignazio Abate.
He had no shortage of role models at the San Siro giants where, originally fielded in central defence, he was called to the first-team squad. Training regularly alongside the likes of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta could not fail to boost the confidence of the talented youngster.
Carlo Ancelotti would give him his full debut for the Rossoneri at the age of 16 in 2006, the first of six appearances for the Milanese giants over the following three years. However, with opportunities severely limited, but with Champions League and UEFA Super Cup winners' medals to his name, he would begin to cut ties with his childhood club.
First sent on loan to Padova, he would eventually be bought in co-ownership by Palermo, helping them become runners-up in the 2011 Coppa Italia and enjoying a short Europa League campaign under Delio Rossi. His season would be disrupted by a string of injuries, and the Sicilian side would move him on to Torino, then in Serie B but looking to earn promotion back to the top flight.
Having helped them achieve that and retain their Serie A status the following year, the Turin club would buy both halves of Darmian’s contract for just under €2.4 million. Like many Torino players, this past season would prove to be a breakout campaign for the maturing defender, coach Giampiero Ventura’s decision to switch to 3-5-2 drawing the best from the most talented players in the squad.
Immobile netted 22 times to be the league’s top scorer, with sidekick Alessio Cerci registering 13 goals and 10 assists to grab the headlines. Behind him, Darmian displayed the aptitude and versatility that had observers across the peninsula sitting up and paying close attention.
Stats site WhoScored.com offers great insight into his season, showing he averaged 2.9 tackles and 1.3 interceptions, while notching three assists from a stream of accurate crosses. They also highlight that he played both full-back roles and five games in central defence, helping the Granata wherever he was needed.
His side have once again earned a spot in the Europa League, and as he celebrated his maiden international call-up, Darmian was in no doubt as to who deserved credit for his meteoric rise.
"If I'm here it is thanks to Torino and especially to Ventura,” he told reporters early last month (h/t FIFA.com). “Ancelotti granted me my league debut, but it's Ventura that has given me the playing time and made me grow as a player.”
With his intelligent and decisive performance against England grabbing attention, the man he has been compared to has firmly backed Darmian to succeed.
Speaking in an interview with UEFA.com, Antonio Cabrini summed up the general consensus when he said: “[Darmian] can become a focal point of the Azzurri defence for many years.” With displays stirring echoes of his iconic predecessors, Matteo Darmian could do exactly that.