Having recently dispatched Everton in the UEFA Europa League, there has been lots of praise lavished upon Serie A side Atalanta. That 3-0 win highlighted the impact that coach Gian Piero Gasperini has made upon the Bergamo-based club, giving playing time to an array of talented young players since arriving in the summer of 2016.
Mattia Caldara, Franck Kessie and Roberto Gagliardini have earned big transfers as a result of the boss putting his faith in them, but Gasperini also deserves credit for recognising another wonderful prospect during his time with previous club Genoa.
As the 2015/16 campaign was drawing to a close, the Grifone were playing a midweek friendly against Casale and won comfortably. Ahead 5-0 and with a crowd of just 500 people watching this clash with a lower-league side, the veteran coach took the bold step of sending a 15-year-old striker into the fray.
Pietro Pellegri came on in the 33rd minute to replace Goran Pandev, and he would score seven minutes later, making sure those in attendance would not forget his name. Gasperini considered giving him a full debut the following week, but his final game in charge of Genoa was viewed as being too soon for the forward.
While the coach was cautious, club owner Enrico Preziosi was, as he tends to be, much more bullish. "I've got the next Lionel Messi here, and I just hope it doesn't go to his head," he said during an interview with Mediaset Premium (h/t ESPN FC's Ben Gladwell), yet it would be a number of iconic Italian players who would instead soon find their names forever linked with the youngster.
Pellegri would then go back to playing for the Genoa youth team, only to be recalled by new coach Ivan Juric in April, playing almost 30 minutes against Chievo after being an unused substitute in a number of other games.
Then came the final game of the season, away against Roma. The Stadio Olimpico was packed for the last match of Francesco Totti's career but, just as the idol of the Italian capital was waving farewell, Pellegri stepped up to steal the spotlight.
He was handed a start for the first time and responded by scoring in the third minute. Fans would pay homage to Totti after the final whistle, but they witnessed history as that goal (shown above) was the first in Serie A to be scored by a player born in 2001.
The smart, composed finish brought yet more hyperbole from club owner Preziosi, who demanded €60 million for Pellegri after being informed of interest from Inter Milan and Roma.
"If you think the price is too high, then I could reply by saying what others are worth," the Genoa president told ANSA (h/t ESPN FC's Gladwell). "People are paying hundreds of millions for players and everybody puts a value on negotiations which they feel is suitable."
Preziosi has remained quiet on Pellegri so far this season, but when he next speaks about his young striker, the price he demands might well have risen even higher. Facing an in-form Lazio side who had demolished AC Milan a week earlier, Juric used a strikerless formation with Adel Taarabt as a false nine, but just 33 minutes into the game, the Genoa coach realised he needed to make a change.
He once again called upon Pellegri, who scored in the second half after a comedy of errors from opposition defenders Stefan de Vrij and Stefan Radu. Ciro Immobile restored Lazio's lead, only to see Pellegri sprint free to slot home another equaliser as he turned Ervin Zukanovic's deep cross into the net.
Genoa would still go on to lose 3-2, but after the final whistle, the talk was all about the 16-year-old prodigy. "We're working a lot with Pellegri, he played like a real centre-forward tonight," Juric told Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia) shortly after the final whistle, while the player's own post-match interview took an incredible twist.
Talking live on television, Pellegri became emotional when he was shown images of his father Marco crying while he celebrated his goals. What made this scene (shown below) even more surprising is that the older man is employed as Genoa's team manager, responsible for liaising between the club and their players.
Among his duties are filling in teamsheets and setting up the substitution board for the fourth official, meaning that every time Pietro is sent on from the bench, he stands beside his father on the touchline.
He was thankful to Marco for enrolling him in the Genoa academy as a youngster and loves the club, explaining what it meant to score at the Gradinata Nord end of the stadium, where the club's Ultras stand.
"With the two goals at Marassi, under the northern end, I've fulfilled a dream," Pellegri told the Associated Press (via the Daily Mail). "One goal I'm dedicating to the fans, because I'm Genovese like them. And one for my dad."
"My father has been following my career since I was little and it's wonderful that he was so moved," he told Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia). "He always took me to training, even in the cold and rain. He's the one who keeps me on the right path in football, while my mother makes sure I study at school."
Now fully part of the first-team squad, he joked with La Gazzetta dello Sport (link in Italian) that he can't even be "the cool guy at school" as a private tutor visits his home each day after morning training sessions finish.
No longer an ordinary schoolboy, the 16-year-old is instead looking to replicate a long list of attacking players who have come to prominence at Genoa—Italy's oldest club now home to the country's brightest young talent.
Pellegri told Mediaset Premium that his idol is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, labelling him "the best striker in the world," and there are some obvious parallels with the Sweden star's playing style.
He is already 6'3" (1.9 metres) tall and weighs around 80 kilograms, a physique that allows him to bully defenders who get too close. Pellegri is excellent with his back to goal and links well with Genoa's midfielders in their counter-attacking style, creating chances for others and working hard for the team.
There is, of course, much work to be done if he is to succeed, with his tactical awareness and passing both areas in need of rapid improvement, but Genoa have a long history of churning out impressive forwards.
Diego Milito, Giovanni Simeone, Stephan El Shaarawy and Immobile are among those tohave worn the Rossoblu shirt, and each were sold on for a major profit when a bigger club came calling. Pellegri could be their next big star.
That is almost certain to happen again now as his exploits gather more and more attention. Local newspaper Il Secolo XIX (h/t Football Italia) has listed Milan, Juve and Inter as potential suitors, while noting Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United have also expressed interest.
He told reporters (per Il Quotidiano, link in Italian) that his team-mates still see him as "a puppy," but Pietro Pellegri has already inspired tears and transfer rumours, broken records and threatened to spoil Totti's curtain call. He might soon become the big dog if one of Europe's more powerful clubs chooses to bite.