5 Serie A Youngsters Primed to Take the Next Step
For the better part of the last decade, Serie A has been handicapped by the dual blows of the Calciopoli scandal and the Italian financial crisis. The former saw the league's top clubs crippled, while the latter has seen Italian clubs lag behind their foreign counterparts in their ability to pay transfer fees and wages.
That inability to purchase and pay more established stars has made it more important than ever for clubs to develop their young players. If Italian teams want to reach the highest levels of European competition again, they will have to do it by assembling teams of young, inexpensive players and complementing them with talent from the transfer market.
Today we'll look at the future of Serie A. Here are five young players who are poised to take the next step in their development and turn into true stars in the near future.
Francesco Totti may still be defying Father Time, but Mattia Destro is the future of Roma.
Purchased two seasons ago after scoring 12 times for Siena, much of Destro's first year-and-a-half in the Eternal City was lost to injury. When he finally got healthy, he showed just how effective he could be.
WhoScored counted 13 goals and an assist in 20 games for Destro last season. His conversion rate of shots to goals was particularly impressive. Of his 39 total shots (according to ESPN FC), 22 of them found the target, and he scored on a full third of his overall shot attempts.
Had Destro been fully healthy from the beginning of the season, it's possible he could have been in the discussion for the scoring title.
His season earned him a call-up to the provisional roster for the World Cup, although Cesare Prandelli left him home in his final cuts.
Destro's performance last season has attracted attention. Roma needs to sell at least one piece to balance out the summer spending spree that has seen Juan Iturbe, Davide Astori and others arrive in the capitol. The favorite to leave is Adem Ljajic, but a Sunday report from Sportitalia (via Football Italia) says that former German champion Wolfsburg has tabled a €25 million bid for Destro.
Destro is still likely to remain at Roma, who are preparing for their first Champions League campaign in four years. Expect him to get a lot of time on the field, especially in the league while Rudi Garcia tries to keep Totti fresh for European competition.
Destro will be on display on the biggest stage of club soccer for the first time. He can use that exposure, along with Roma's status as the top contenders to Juventus' Serie A crown, to cement his status as a legitimate star at the striker position.
Simone Zaza's name first came on the radar two seasons ago when he scored 18 goals for a terrible Ascoli team that dropped out of Serie B despite his efforts.
Juventus and Sassuolo both bought half of Zaza's rights from Sampdoria after that season, and Zaza played last season in the Neroverdi shirt. A primary striker for the team, Zaza played in 33 games (24 of them starts) and scored nine times, good for second on the team according to WhoScored.
Zaza developed excellent chemistry with fellow Juve property Domenico Berardi as the season progressed. The two players were both considered for a return to Turin this year. Eventually both returned to Sassuolo for more playing time. The Neroverdi even bought Zaza outright, although Juve prudently included a buyback clause in the deal.
Zaza has the chance to become this year's breakout forward in Serie A. His good relationship with Berardi will continue to develop. Sassuolo have spent some money this year to solidify their position in the top flight, so his service is likely to be better at least than last year.
He has already scored twice in preseason this year. If he can turn into a reliable second scoring option, Sassuolo could keep themselves up for another season, and Zaza could find himself in demand.
Only 18 years old, Simone Scuffet made waves in Serie A last season when he took over for the injured Zeljko Brkic on February 1. He kept a clean sheet in his professional debut and helped Udinese beat Bologna 2-0.
He kept his hold on the starting job for the rest of the season. He started 16 games all told according to ESPNFC, and Udinese earned points in 11 of those games. He also started all four of Italy's games in the most recent U17 World Cup, where the Azzurrini made their way to the quarterfinal before falling to Mexico.
Italy is renowned for producing excellent keepers. From Dino Zoff to Gianluigi Buffon, Italians have always made their goals secure. Over the last few years a glut of keeper talent has been rising through the youth ranks, and now Scuffet has added his name to the likes of Nicola Leali, Francesco Bardi and Mattia Perin.
He certainly has turned heads. He has turned down a potential transfer to Spanish champions Atletico Madrid and intends to play on in Udine this season. La Gazzetta dello Sport reported (h/t Football Italia) that Roma director Walter Sabatini now has the youngster in his sights.
That move would make sense for both clubs, as Roma cannot rely on Morgan De Sanctis too much longer. This season could be Scuffet's audition for clubs like Roma and Milan who don't have a long-term keeper.
If he continues his maturation and improves on his impressive debut, he could be one of the hottest names on the market come next season.
Inter bought Mateo Kovacic in the winter of 2013 with the expectation that he'd be their next playmaker. They even handed the then 18-year-old Croatian the No. 10 jersey that had been recently vacated by Wesley Sneijder.
Kovacic, however, didn't settle into Walter Mazzarri's tactics until late last season. WhoScored records that he only started 14 games last year. He came on as a sub 18 times, but for much of the year, he was second to Ricky Alvarez as an advanced playmaker.
This season is the time for him to take his next step. The mercurial Alvarez can't be relied on for steady performance, and Kovacic showed promise later in the season. He needs to be a starter from the onset this season so that he can complete his development and truly take over the No. 10 role that Inter hasn't filled since Sneijder's departure.
Kovacic can lead the league in assists if he is given the right opportunities. If Inter wants to rise back to the top of Serie A, Kovacic's development is key. He's primed to take the team over, but he needs the playing time to do it.
When 16 goals and three hat tricks are the first step, the prospect of the next step likely has Serie A defenders shaking in their boots.
Berardi's season last year was simply amazing. In only his second professional season, he was one of only five players in Europe's top leagues to score three or more hat tricks. That his company on that list is Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is all the more impressive.
The problem for Berardi is that he wasn't consistent. As pointed out in this space in June, he only scored in nine of his 29 games last year—only 31 percent. By contrast, Ibrahimovic scored in 53.6 percent of his matches between Ligue 1 and the Champions League last season. Berardi was hampered by the fact that he played on a team that wasn't giving him much service, but he still needs to find more consistency in his play and not just score goals in clumps.
Berardi also needs to improve his discipline. He was booked 10 times last season. That is a testament to his willingness to get back and help on defense, but also shows a recklessness that needs to be reigned in. The straight red card he received barely 60 seconds after coming on as a sub in a match against Parma last year was totally unacceptable.
Another year of regular play with Sassuolo will do him good. What he needs to focus on are cashing in on his chances more consistently and rounding out the rough edges in his defensive game. If he does, 20 to 25 goals are certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Berardi will return to parent club Juventus at the end of the season for a pre-agreed fee of €14 million. If he takes that next step and then continues that form in black and white stripes, he could become one of the most talked-about players in the world.