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Nov 23, 2011

Little Prince rising to prominence

If only Claudio Marchisio's Turinese accent was stronger, it would make the stereotype of 'local lad done good' jump out of the page at you. The Juventus midfielder, though, while retaining several of the peculiar traits of his origin, has matured too steadily on and off the pitch to be cast in the role of someone whose imagination and dreams barely stretched beyond the confines of Chieri, the small town right outside Turin where he was born in January 1986.

As the youngest in a Juventus-supporting family, a young Marchisio would dream of one day donning the famous black-and-white shirt, following in the footsteps of his favourite player, Alessandro Del Piero, whose poster adorned a wall in his bedroom. Along with the rest of his season-ticket holding family, Marchisio was in the uncomfortable, poorly-sighted stands of the now demolished Stadio Delle Alpi on that early December day in 1994 when Del Piero scored one of the most memorable goals in the recent history of Italian football.

By that time, Marchisio was already a member of Juventus' youth system, where he wore the No. 10 shirt as a tribute to Del Piero. His ambition to be like Alex stretched to becoming a striker, but his coaches detected something else: that his strong running, stamina and body type were more conducive to a career in midfield.

Evidence of that came in 1998, when a 12-year-old Marchisio, wearing that No. 10 jersey a couple of sizes too big, galloped from one end of the muddy pitch to the other, exchanged a quick one-two with Paolo De Ceglie and lobbed the goalkeeper with a sweet touch. When later shown footage from that goal (recorded by his father) during a show hosted by Juve's in-house TV channel, Marchisio almost broke down in tears at the thought of having come so far since that day.

Kids scoring wonder goals against overmatched opponents, though, are a dime-a-dozen and it is a testimony to his attitude, determination and work ethic that Marchisio made the transition to professional player and, now, a regular member of the Juventus starting midfield.

His place had been threatened during the summer. As soon as Antonio Conte began installing his system - be it 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 - and Juventus signed Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal (who looked like the ideal central midfield partner for the former Milan passmaster), insiders started wondering what would happen with Marchisio, who had just extended his contract to 2016. They should not have worried.

Marchisio had, after all, been a jack-of-all-trades for Juventus and Italy for a number of years already. His multidimensional skills have worked both for and against him, as coaches felt free to move him around in order to accommodate players with lesser qualities in their own positions.

As an example, during the 2009-10 season, when Ciro Ferrara was in charge, Marchisio played either on the left or on the right of a three-man midfield in a 4-3-1-2, was a nominal left winger several times in a 4-4-2 and also partnered Felipe Melo in central midfield in the same formation.

Marcello Lippi used him in left midfield in the only two matches Marchisio started in the ill-fated - and badly coached - 2010 World Cup campaign, and when the current season dawned doubts over his best position arose again. "He's a superb central midfielder, and that's where he will play. He can also play wider but only in an emergency. End of the story," was how Conte replied to several questions on the matter, and you could picture the player himself nodding in agreement.

Not that he would ever start a controversy over it. A soft-spoken, down-to-earth lad who has stronger opinions than the average footballer, but is reluctant to spout them, Marchisio has led a stable life for some years, having married the daughter of a former Torino youth team player. "The members of her family have now been converted into Juve fans," he told Guerin Sportivo magazine two years ago, having bought a house not far from Juve's training centre at Vinovo, right outside Turin. He has also admitted to loving National Geographic documentaries which sets him apart from the bling-bling, Louis Vuitton bag-carrying fraternity he mingles with.

As he told Guerino in that interview, he's proud of the image he projects, so that "someone sitting in a restaurant and looking at me sitting across from him would think I'm a clean-cut person" and this could probably fit into the mythical 'Juventus style' more than the dozens of hollow examples that have been thrown at an unsuspecting public over the years. His nickname is, after all, Il Principino (The Little Prince), which seems perfectly suited to his manners and the understated sense of superiority Turin-born people often project [I should know: I am one of them].

Marchisio, according to those who have met him, mixes his young age and good manners in an attractive way. His heavily-tattooed right arm gives away his penchant for showing off, but this is somewhat tempered by his calm voice and an apparent restraint even when, as he's been doing with gusto this season, he scores goals. He netted his fifth of the season on Sunday, rounding out Juve's 3-0 win over the impostors who pass themselves off as Palermo players whenever the pink 'uns play away from home, and remarked afterwards how Conte has helped him find his better position.

As is well-known already, Conte went from a 4-2-4/4-4-2 formation to a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 in order to put both Vidal and Marchisio on the pitch alongside Pirlo, and it's been Vidal's non-stop running and covering abilities that have liberated Marchisio from a sole defensive role and sprung him forward. A master at timing runs to perfection and attacking space before it appears, thus negating a defence's ability to react, Marchisio has often been compared to former Juventus and Italy star Marco Tardelli. In fact, many are predicting a similar career path for him.

Tardelli was perhaps more ferocious as a tackler - he was once booked inside five seconds of a match against Milan for lunging at playmaker Gianni Rivera - but is evolving into a better goalscorer. He opened his account for Italy against Serbia last month, rewarding Cesare Prandelli's faith in him. Oddly enough, Marchisio's full Serie A debut had come against Prandelli's Fiorentina in August 2007, while he was on loan at Empoli alongside fellow Turin-born midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, and his first goal also came against Fiorentina eighteen months later.

Showing skill with both feet - particularly when scoring against Inter in 2009 - his father's role in his development kicked in. As a former amateur player who was well aware of the advantage two-footed players had over the opponents, Stefano Marchisio had taught Claudio to use his left (i.e. "wrong") foot when he was barely seven years old, creating muscle and movement memory which his coaches have subsequently put to greater use.

With a slender build, just like players once used to be, Marchisio is obviously not a finished product and has had to fight a tendency to let games pass him by, but Juve's new look seems perfectly suited to his skills. Having soon learnt how to use his other foot, he may now have to apply the same principle to his hands: he raised his right one with an open palm on Sunday to signal his fifth Serie A goal of the season and there's a chance he will soon have to show he can do the same with his left too.

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