The boy of summer?
It wasn't supposed to be like this for Alberto Gilardino. Only ten months ago, he was a reserve forward - albeit a highly-rated one - for Parma, resigned to pick up bits of action whenever first choice strikers Adrian Mutu and Adriano were rested by coach Cesare Prandelli.
It was not supposed to feature a Manchester United scout watching him against Juventus, and Juve themselves attempting to lure him to Turin as soon as next season, as part of their rebuilding project. It could have been overwhelming, for Gilardino, but it's not been so.
When Mutu left the friendly confines of Parma - a few weeks before the milk started getting sour and most of owner Parmalat's empire turned out to be made of fake money - for the less friendly grounds of SW6 in London, Prandelli tinkered with his line-up and came up with a lone striker set, featuring Adriano up front.
The Brazilian started the season in fabulous form and was leading the Serie A's goalscoring charts when he tore a muscle in a November match at Brescia. Parma's worsening financial troubles meant Adriano was then shipped back to Inter in January, but by that time Gilardino had proved he was not afraid of being dropped from the frying pan into the fire.
Now, with 18 goals, three of them from the penalty spot, the 21-year old striker trails only Andriy Shevchenko (who has 21, only of them a penalty) in the quest to become the Serie A's top goalscorer, and has become the hottest property in Italian football, which bodes well for Parma's creaking bank account, although no one knows for sure whether he will actually be allowed to leave in the summer.
Juventus, apparently his hottest pursuer, have been linked to Gilardino in more than one way: born in Biella, a town one hour north-east of Turin, he was a Juve fan as a kid, and had a trial with them at 11 in 1994, but the Bianconeri staff were not impressed, and neither were other clubs, such as Torino.
Gilardino went back to his hometown and kept on playing for local teams Cossato and Biellese until he was snapped up in the summer of 1997 by then Serie A Piacenza, who gave him his debut - against Milan of all opponents - on January 6, 2000, when Alberto was still six months short of his 18th birthday. He ended up scoring three goals but Piacenza went down to Serie B.
Gilardino did not follow them and in September moved to Verona, where he played 22 times in 2000-01, scoring three, then had a 17-game, 2-goal season in 2001-02, when his progress was slightly halted by a series of misunderstandings (read: they could not stand each other's sight) with coach Alberto Malesani. Again, he did not follow his relegated team to the B, and was transferred to Parma, which held his registration and where he was expected to make a slow transition to the first team.
As a bit-part player last season, though, appearing in 24 matches and scoring four goals with a total of 716 minutes on the pitch, he'd impressed Parma enough that they decided to renew the loan of their more experienced striker, Emiliano Bonazzoli, to Reggina, while Italy's Under 21 coach Claudio Gentile was making Gilardino a fixture in his team, and reaped the rewards in early September with four goals in the Azzurri's 8-1 win against Wales.
Still, before Adriano and Mutu left, at that time it was only logical to expect another campaign of second-half appearances and occasional starting spots. What has impressed most about Gilardino is his ability to play alone up front despite being a totally different player from Adriano.
Parma's preferred formation this year has been in a 4-2-3-1 which requires the lone forward to hold up play and link well with the midfielders. Adriano, with his imposing physical presence, looked perfect for the part, although he had a tendency to drift off on his own and take the defence on single-handedly without much regard for his team-mates, but no one could argue with the results.
Gilardino, despite his six-foot frame, is not the battering ram of a forward Adriano could be. His style has more subtlety, and in fact a lack of intimidation had been his main weakness up until this year, when the long time he's spent on the pitch (more than 2200 minutes in 29 matches) has helped him refine his game.
Gentile acknowledged that Gilardino has matured physically and mentally and can now hold down the lone striker spot without fear, holding up play in order to let his team-mates surge forward and releasing good passes to the wings. He was compared to Pippo Inzaghi at first, but the fact both had started at Piacenza had a large chunk of influence in that kind of comparison.
Actually, Gilardino has shown he can score in a variety of ways: his right foot is way better than his left, but he has good spring and has scored a few headers, relying more on his positioning and timing than on overpowering defenders. His skills can make him a good foil for a more physical attacking partner or the target man for a, say, Del Piero to play off, which is one of the reasons his market value has gone through the roof.
He still says all the right things about needing, at 21, one more year to further his footballing education under a good coach like Prandelli - himself mentioned a few times as a possible replacement for Marcello Lippi on Juve's bench - but has also stated aggressively that he wants to be a fixture with Italy soon.
He's due to play for Gentile in the Under 21 European Championships next summer, but it is becoming increasingly likely that he might snatch a place in the senior squad.
And that Italian superstitious side which always lurks around the corner has already targeted him for a wildly peculiar trait: Gilardino was born on July 5 1982, the same day Italy beat Brazil in the 1982 World Cup with Paolo Rossi scoring three goals.
As silly as it sounds (and is), some apparently hope Gilardino can be, as Rossi was then, a late addition to the squad who can turn things around and spark another success. Which should upset rather than flatter Gilardino: he's worked hard, bid his time, grabbed his chance and improved more than anyone could think, and some people think his birth date is as powerful a good luck charm as his skills?
Go on, Alberto, show them.