Serie A starlets show 'golden generation' emerging in Italian football
Throughout his time in charge of the Italy national team, Antonio Conte despaired at the dwindling pool of talent to choose from and the lack of young players coming through. But over the last 18 months, coaches have taken more chances, playing the kids and reaping the benefits.
A potential "golden generation" has emerged in Italian football to complement the likes of Marco Verratti and Alessandro Florenzi. Watching it all unfold has been quite the thrill and current Italy coach Giampiero Ventura must be encouraged.
Here's an XI for the not-too-distant future.
Gianluigi Donnarumma | Goalkeeper | AC Milan | 17
Donnarumma doesn't turn 18 until February and he has already made more than 50 appearances for Milan. He is an authentic wunderkind. Just check out his flying save against Juventus in October and the penalty he stopped in the Italian Super Cup to clinch Milan their first trophy since 2011. As far as club owner Silvio Berlusconi is concerned, Milan don't have to worry about the goalkeeping position for the next 20 years. If only it were that simple. While Donnarumma is a lifelong Milan fan, his agent Mino Raiola won't allow his client to commit to a new deal until the club's prospective Chinese owners show him they mean business.
Mattia Caldara | Centre-back | Atalanta | 22
Caldara is going to need bigger pockets after filling them with Mauro Icardi, Edin Dzeko and Arkadiusz Milik this season. Some of Serie A's best strikers have found it impossible to get past him and to add insult to injury he has proved a goal threat too. Caldara is the league's most prolific centre-back with three goals this season. Not enough has been made of the 22-year-old's emergence. In fact, the €15 million deal struck with Juventus, which will see Caldara stay at Atalanta until 2018, has passed a lot of people by. Expect him to succeed Giorgio Chiellini in Turin.
Daniele Rugani | Centre-back | Juventus | 22
Carlo Ancelotti recently raved to my colleague Gabriele Marcotti about David Alaba's defending skills, highlighting how he can defend passively and actively when most players can play only one way or the other in particular. Rugani arrived at Juve 18 months ago as a centre-back used to zonal marking and anticipation play. He was a very clean defender who went 53 games without a booking. While most considered that a virtue, Juventus didn't like it. They have since taught Rugani to get physical and man-mark. Now, just like Alaba, he can do both.
Alessio Romagnoli | Centre-back | AC Milan | 22
Bought for €25m last season, Romagnoli has seen more game time than Rugani because of less competition for places at Milan. He has benefited this year from having Gabriel Paletta beside him, a steady partner who speaks good Italian. "Slaughtered" by the media when his plans to start Romagnoli for a qualifier against Spain in November became public, Italy coach Ventura felt entirely vindicated as the Milan centre-back put in a mature performance. At one stage this campaign, Romagnoli even went more than 10 hours without committing a foul. No wonder Chelsea pushed hard for him in the summer.
Federico Chiesa | Winger | Fiorentina | 19
Not the only break-out star to have a famous father in Serie A this season. Chiesa hasn't quite had the impact that Giovanni Simeone has at Genoa, but it's been surprising how often he has kept Cristian Tello out of the team at Fiorentina this season. Like his father Enrico Chiesa, he plays up front but out wide and models his game on Angel Di Maria.
Manuel Locatelli | Midfielder | AC Milan | 19
It was interesting to hear Mauro Bianchessi, Milan's chief talent spotter, say he believes that, "Donnarumma permitting, Locatelli will be captain within three years." At Milan since he was 11, Locatelli has acted like a guardian angel in front of the defence while also showing a willingness to take risks and get forward. His first two shots on target in Serie A resulted in two goals and both were beauties, particularly the winner he blasted past Gianluigi Buffon in October. As La Gazzetta dello Sport put it, this Milan team is "Livin' La Vida Loca." Another midfielder making a name for himself this season is Nicolo Barella at Cagliari.
Roberto Gagliardini | Midfielder | Inter | 22
There was some head scratching when Ventura called Gagliardini up to his Italy squad in October and even more so when Inter paid Atalanta €22m for him in January, particularly as he couldn't get a kick at second division Vicenza this time last year. But Gagliardini looks the complete midfield player. Gian Piero Gasperini, his coach at Atalanta, has compared him with Paul Pogba. The long stride is primarily what they have in common and Gagliardini's ability to close down opponents and turn defence into attack at a gallop is already valued at Inter. He looked a natural on his San Siro debut.
Riccardo Orsolini | Winger | Ascoli | 20
Boy, you did feel for Orsolini's opponent. First he showed him outside and got nutmegged, then the poor guy lost his balance completely and fell over as Orsolini spun back from whence he came. Dribbles like that, involving breathtaking skill executed at lightning fast speed, have led pundits to prematurely declare Orsolini the "Italian Arjen Robben." Milan wanted him to join their young, talented and Italian project. Inter had Javier Zanetti personally telephone him. But as with Caldara, Juventus got their first.
Andrea Belotti | Striker | Torino | 23
Belotti scores as many goals with his left as he does with his right and finds the net as often with his head as he does with his feet. The Torino striker isn't pretty to watch, but he's effective and there aren't many players in his position who are as generous as they are prolific. Only Gonzalo Higuain scored more goals in 2016, and to think just last summer Italy was worried about not having anyone coming through to succeed Graziano Pelle, who despite an excellent Euro 2016 was mostly treated snobbishly. Belotti is the new Christian Vieri.
Federico Bernardeschi | No. 10 | Fiorentina | 22
Anointed the new Roberto Baggio by the Curva Fiesole, Bernardeschi has rivalled Belotti as Italy's young player of the season. His performance against Napoli before Christmas was one of the finest I've seen this season and after a year of running up and down the wing, he is fulfilling his potential in a role behind centre-forward Nikola Kalinic. At the club since he was a boy and Tuscan born and bred, how long Fiorentina can hold onto Bernardeschi remains to be seen. Curiously, Paulo Sousa suspects the Viola don't have the means to match his ambition and Inter are circling.
Domenico Berardi | Striker | Sassuolo | 22
Since World War II, only Giampiero Boniperti and the late Ezio Pascutti have been more precocious about getting to 30 Serie A goals than Berardi. He started this season on fire with seven in six games before a troublesome knee injury suffered at the end of August kept him out until the New Year. Berardi recently marked his return with couple of assists and Sassuolo, who really struggled without him, have won back-to-back games for the first time all season in the league. It is not a coincidence.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.