Is Josip Ilicic Serie A's Next Big Superstar?

Allan JiangTransfers CorrespondentJuly 25, 2013

PALERMO, ITALY - MAY 08:  Josip Ilicic (L)  of Palermo and Marques Allan of Udinese compete for the ball during he Serie A match between US Citta di Palermo and Udinese Calcio at Stadio Renzo Barbera on May 8, 2013 in Palermo, Italy.  (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Fiorentina signing Josip Ilicic, a Liverpool transfer target, from Palermo not only reinforces the Viola's squad depth but it gives the 25-year-old Slovenian international another opportunity to become Serie A's next big superstar. 

If not for a chance UEFA Europa League meeting against Palermo as a member of Maribor, Ilicic may have been stashed away from playing in an elite European league during his prime like Włodzimierz Lubański, Vasilis Hatzipanagis, Oktay Derelioglu, et al.

Ilicic, a 6'3" deep-lying forward, possesses a Robin van Persie-like touch and is blessed with Rivaldo-esque creativity. But until last season, the Slovenian underachieved for Palermo, a club that will be playing Serie B football this season under the management of Gennaro Gattuso. 

Ilicic is a virtuoso, an entertainer, a player that people want to watch, just like the previous owner of the No. 27 Palermo shirt—his former teammate Javier Pastore.

Five minutes into the second half during a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in April, Ilicic finally accomplished what he threatens to do every match: a solo golazo. 

Ilicic did a Cruyff turn, shrugged off Gianni Munari's challenge, perfectly executed the Pelé runaround move on Pedro Obiang, evaded Angelo Palombo's lunging tackle, and achieved football's equivalent to an ankle-breaker on Daniele Gastaldello. This was all before slotting the ball past Sergio Romero with a right-footed finish—not bad for a predominately left-footed player. 

Nine seconds earlier, Ilicic had his back to goal near the halfway line. 

Even in his best season for Palermo, where he resurrected his career akin to Adem Ljajić at Fiorentina, there were plenty of faults in Ilicic's game. 

  • Wasteful shooting: 10 goals from 90 shots in Serie A.
  • Very low assist-to-passes ratio: created two goals from 1,143 passes [1]
  • Led Palermo in possession lost and turnovers. 
  • Didn't score or provide an assist in four league games vs. Juventus and AC Milan.

[1] in fairness, Jasmin Kurtic (no goals from 53 shots) and Edgar Barreto (no goals from 32 shots) would have contributed to Ilicic having a more selfish mentality. 

Ilicic's decision, one that may have not eventuated if Stevan Jovetić wasn't sold to Manchester City, to become a Fiorentina player will give him the stability that wasn't afforded to him at Palermo. 

"Cavani is an exceptional player but he wanted to leave Palermo, otherwise I would have kept him," said Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini in 2010, via Football Italia. "Ilicic has arrived in his place."

Edinson Cavani doubled his goal-scoring output for Napoli and was sold to Paris Saint-Germain for €64 million.

What do Delio Rossi, Gian Piero Gasperini, Bortolo Mutti, Devis Mangia, Giuseppe Sannino, Serse Cosmi, Stefano Pioli and Alberto Malesani have in common?

They all coached Ilicic whilst living in fear of Zamparini whereas Fiorentina have given manager Vincenzo Montella a squad that have made the Violas relevant. 

  • Mario Gómez: German international who scored 39 and 41 goals during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season for Bayern Munich. 
  • Borja Valero: A former Real Madrid player who plays like a Barcelona player. As the midfield conductor for Fiorentina, he had an 88.4 passing completion percentage and led the club in league assists (11). 
  • Juan Guillermo Cuadrado: Pacey wingback building a reputation as one of the most lethal players in Europe. He almost doubled (3.3) Cristiano Ronaldo's dribbles per league game averaged (1.7). 
  • Giuseppe Rossi: Elite striker at Villarreal, who proved his critics wrong after failing to make it at Manchester United, only to have his career threatened by successive cruciate ligament injuries.
  • Alberto Aquilani: Would have become one of the best midfielders in the world if not for his recurring injuries. Earlier this month, his agent stated how happy Aquilani was, via Football Italia: "The future? I hope that it will be with La Viola for a long time, he has found a place full of satisfaction and he is not going to go away."
  • Massimo Ambrosini: Stalwart for AC Milan who'll add professionalism and grit in midfield. His 3.2 tackles per league game and 5.8 in the UEFA Champions League show age hasn't slowed down his defensive productivity. 
  • Joaquín: Played over 50 times for Spain during the early-mid 2000s. Experienced midfielder who'll quickly adjust to life in Florence with the help of countrymen Valero and Marcos Alonso, as well as the Spanish-speaking clique at the club. 

What makes this Fiorentina side special isn't that they have world-class players, in fact, most of these players were discards at Europe's most prestigious clubs. 

It's the style Montella has the Violas playing: flowing, possession-based, creative attacking football with an adequate defensive system to fall back on (Fiorentina had the fifth-best defensive record in last season's Serie A).

This is the type of environment Ilicic will thrive in. 

You may have noticed that Ljajić and David Pizarro weren't included in the aforementioned list.

Like Pizarro, who's a more important player than Ljajić in Montella's 3-5-2, the futures of both players still remain unsolved. 

It's in Ilicic's best interest that Ljajić, who had three dreadful seasons at the club before a resurgence last season, leaves. 

In a 3-5-2, the two strikers on paper would be Gómez and Rossi, unless one of the two (probably the American-born Italian) is relegated to the bench, enabling Ilicic to play behind Gómez in what will, strictly speaking, be a 3-5-1-1. 

Montella's other mode of operation, a 4-3-3, will likely see Ilicic as an inside-out right-sided forward, cutting in and shooting.

One major problem: Cuadrado was dynamite on the right-side. 

You always hope that a footballer of Ilicic's immense ability will take that next step up, like Jovetić did, but those who've followed the careers of Matías Fernández, currently a Viola, and his compatriot Jorge Valdívia, will speak of frustratingly inconsistent players. 

Fiorentina supporters know first hand about that. 

Diego Latorre was technically superior than his Boca Juniors teammate Gabriel Batistuta, who was only discovered when then-Viola vice president Vittorio Cecchi Gori was watching film footage of Latorre, at the time proclaimed to be the successor to Diego Maradona's throne, never lived up to the hype. 

Then there was Valeri Bojinov, projected to reach the heights of Hristo Stoichkov; and Brian Laudrup, the little brother of Michael, who later found solace in the Scottish Premier League with Rangers. 

Ilicic has world-class technique, but that won't guarantee he'll be a superstar on a Fiorentina team that is expected to finish in the top three of the upcoming Serie A campaign. 


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Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.comFox Soccer and Squawka.com


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