Napoli's Amadou Diawara in need of more playing time, better opportunity
Amadou Diawara's first Serie A goal could not have come at a better time. Napoli were on the verge of losing crucial points at home against Chievo on Sunday -- Dries Mertens missed a penalty before Mariusz Stepinski put the away side 1-0 up, only for substitute Arkadiusz Milik to head an equaliser with one minute left -- when the ball fell to the 20-year-old midfielder in the dying seconds.
Diawara took a magnificent first touch, then sent an even better curling shot into the far corner to make it 2-1 before celebrating wildly, his eyes full of tears. With such a late comeback win Napoli stayed in the title race, four points behind Juventus, whom they face later this month.
The Guinean is more than happy to step up when it matters. Despite his young age.
In October, Mertens missed another penalty when Manchester City hosted Napoli in the Champions League, and Diawara took responsibility in the second half when the Partenopei were awarded another spot kick. It takes a lot of courage to take your first penalty at such a big stage, but Diawara wasn't afraid. The youngster asked captain Marek Hamsik for permission, then calmly slotted the ball past Ederson.
Such behaviour shows Diawara's remarkable maturity, but he was left disappointed at the end as Napoli failed to score the equaliser and lost 2-1. Though Diawara found solace in one moment of joy. "Scoring in front of my idol Yaya Toure was exciting. I have no words really," Diawara admitted afterwards.
Toure has always been Diawara's role model. The Guinean took the No. 42 at Napoli in Toure's honour, and emulating the former Barcelona star's achievements would have been on Diawara's mind back when he first played for a small church team in his hometown of Conakry.
Choosing football as his profession wasn't straightforward for Diawara. Due to his middle-upper class upbringing -- his dad Bakary is a maths teacher; his mother was a teacher as well; while his sisters studied pharmacology, medicine and economics -- football was not an easy career path to find. Bakary believed that his son should follow in the family footsteps and didn't want to hear anything about football, so Amadou was forced to play in secret.
Diawara even took showers at his friends' apartments after games so that his family wouldn't know. Luckily, his eldest sister Sira supported him from the start and even bought him boots. Thanks to her, Amadou continued believing, even though Bakary slapped him in the face when the boy finally had the courage to confess. Eventually, the big change in Diawara's life occurred when he was just 16, shortly after his mother tragically died.
Robert Visan, an Italian agent and scout, noticed his talent and Diawara moved to Europe, taking just one small bag with him. He ended up getting a trial at a tiny third division club in San Marino at the beginning of 2015. And their coach, Fabrizio Tazzioli, was immediately impressed.
"I saw the guy in training and thought that he is a phenomenon," he recalled, comparing Diawara to legendary France captain Marcel Desailly. "He is not as strong physically, but better with his feet and has the same presence on the pitch."
Just 15 games later, Diawara signed for Bologna for a reported fee of €500,000 thanks to the faith of sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, the man who once discovered Mirko Vucinic and brought him to Lecce.
Diawara became one of the most important players for the Serie A club during the 2015-16 season, especially after coach Roberto Donadoni arrived in October.
Proving to be very sound tactically, Diawara made crucial interceptions, distributed the ball wisely and showed outstanding ball control as well. The defensive midfielder immediately attracted interest from various top clubs -- including Juventus, Roma, Chelsea, Manchester City and Bayern Munich -- which prompted him to refuse to join Bologna's preseason camp in the summer of 2016. The club claimed his absence was down to "stress" but Diawara wanted out and eventually Napoli came in to sign him for €16 million in August.
It is difficult to say whether the move has been good for the youngster. On one hand, he joined a top club that consistently fights for the Serie A title and plays in the Champions League. Diawara was proud to start in both fixtures against Real Madrid last season and made a very positive impression even though Napoli lost, while the remarkable performance at Manchester City this term also made a lasting impression.
But on the other hand, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri doesn't rotate his team too often, which means very limited opportunities for squad players. With Jorginho and Allan ahead of him in the midfield pecking order, Diawara only started 10 Serie A games in 2016-17, and has been in the XI only four times this season.
His heroics against Chievo on Sunday came in his first home start in Serie A this term, and that is clearly not enough to develop properly.
Outwardly, the Guinean is patient, claiming: "I work hard in training, put myself at the disposal of the coach and am so very grateful every time I am given the opportunity to play and show what I can do."
But, in search of more regular playing time, he may be keen to listen to any offers in the summer. A move to the Premier League is a possibility as Tottenham were heavily linked to Diawara in January, while Liverpool are reportedly following him closely too.
The latter option is especially interesting, not least because the best Guinean player of this generation, Naby Keita, will move to Anfield from RB Leipzig in the summer. If Diawara joins his compatriot they would have a chance to develop a promising partnership in midfield, as their skills seem to be complimentary.
Diawara has shown that he has the maturity and skills to be a top player, if given the chance. But in order to get closer to his idol Toure's level, he may have to leave Napoli.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.