How Genoa's Krzysztof Piatek, 'the new Lewandowski,' went from unknown to star of Serie A
It's late May 2018, and Genoa president Enrico Preziosi is sat at a table in an Ibiza restaurant with an agent who is showing him clip after clip of a Polish striker he thinks would do well in Serie A.
Goals had been hard to come by for the Grifone over the last nine months, Gianluca Lapadula took 30 games to score four, and were it not for the team's defence they would have probably been relegated. Only Verona and Sassuolo scored fewer ... So the agent has Preziosi's attention.
The guy in the video, Krzysztof Piatek, found the net 21 times last season for KS Cracovia. He's being hailed as the "new Robert Lewandowski" -- words which must have prompted Preziosi to have a flashback or two.
While Blackburn fans blame the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruptions for grounding Lewandowski and stopping him from talking to Sam Allardyce about a move to Ewood Park in 2010, Preziosi only has himself to blame for not buying the striker when he had the chance that same year. The toy-maker came so close to having Lewandowski's signature that La Repubblica and Sky Italia declared it a done deal.
Genoa's manager at the time, Gian Piero Gasperini, had watched Lewandowski play for Lech Poznan against Udinese and liked what he saw. The Poland international passed a medical and was the guest of the club at the Derby della Lanterna against Sampdoria. "I shook his hand in the hotel," Gasperini revealed to Sky Italia in 2016.
But just as everything seemed ready for completion, a now infamous statement appeared on Genoa's website denying an agreement had been reached. The whole thing collapsed, and the stories as to why continue to conflict.
Preziosi would later bring up an eye-watering commission demanded by the intermediary brokering the transfer. However, Genoa's sporting director at the time, Stefano Capozucca had a slightly different version of events. "When the President saw him in the stands [at the derby], he was unimpressed by his physical structure," he said. "He was a lot less imposing a figure than he is now and didn't look like a classic centre-forward."
In hindsight Preziosi has perhaps come to look on the business as a teachable moment. However, repeating the blunders of the past seems to be something trademark of his -- see this week's decision to fire Davide Ballardini -- so maybe the lack of any hesitation in giving the go-ahead to buy another relatively unknown Polish striker was also about exorcising a ghost that had haunted him for eight years.
Unknown three months ago, Piatek is now a name on everybody's lips having arrived for around €4m this summer. Indeed, the 23-year-old has become one of Europe's most wanted.
Few players have made as instant an impact in Serie A. After scoring 10 goals in four preseason games, Piatek marked his first competitive outing by becoming the first Genoa player to put four past an opponent in the Coppa Italia since Mario Boye in 1950. His 37-minute "poker" against Lecce, which included a hat trick of headers, started just 88 seconds into his debut. It then took Piatek little more than five minutes to open his account in Serie A. He did so with a wonderfully composed and coordinated side-foot volley, positioning himself between the centre-backs and not allowing either of them to put him off.
Afterwards Ballardini paled when asked about the youngster. "I'm afraid to talk about him," he confessed. "He's got everything. I have a feeling he can go on to become a big name. I'm whispering it."
Piatek's debut goal came faster than several more illustrious foreign imports. Just take your pick from George Weah (6) and Gabriel Batistuta (72) to the Brazilian Ronaldo (142) and Diego Maradona (152). "I saw that," Piatek told Il Secolo XIX. "Even Zibi [Boniek, the Polish great] took 250. But I read that there was a player who scored after just a minute [Luis Vinicio in 1955]."
Quick on the draw -- 10 of Piatek's goals have come in the first half -- he has taken to calling himself El Pistolero (The Gunslinger) -- celebrating his strikes by firing off a couple of rounds from his fingers and blowing on them, before holstering them again as if they were the smoking barrels of a deadly weapon.
Piatek can't stop scoring. When he found the net against Lazio -- making it five in four league games -- his start to life in Serie A matched that of Milan great Andriy Shevchenko in 1999. He then bettered Brazilian legend Zico, who announced himself with six in seven in Udine back in the 1980s. And now he has nine in seven -- with Batistuta's record 11-game scoring streak from the start of the 1994-95 season firmly in his sights.
Piatek is scoring at a rate expected of Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo (who has four in eight by the way). The Pole seems to have caught everyone napping. Not only Ronaldo and the league's other top strikers who, with the exception of Lazio's Ciro Immobile (five goals in seven), needed a while to catch fire this season. But what about the clubs? How is it that no one else felt Piatek was worth a punt?
The reason his story captures the imagination is because he is a player who came out of nowhere in an age when the amount of information available means nothing escapes anyone anymore. How did he lay undiscovered for so long, plucked from Poland not as an undeveloped teenager but as a 23-year-old who must have wondered why he was still hanging around the Ekstraklasa?
One thing's for sure: now everybody knows Piatek's name. Interest from Europe's biggest clubs is beginning to mount and there are daily rumours linking him to Bayern (who still have the original Lewandowski), Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City and many more.
For now though, the fire is lit and still roaring. Partnered with Lewandowski, Piatek headed in another goal as Poland lost 3-2 to Portugal on Thursday night. But, for Preziosi, one out-shining the other represents less of a redemption, more of a vindication. "If I think back about what I thought about him then and what I think about Piatek now," he said. "I can't say anything other than: Krzysztof is potentially better, a lot better."