Will Italy's teenage wonderkid El Shaarawy follow in the footsteps of a Maldini or a Santon?

COMMENT
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer

Italy are not exactly known for their tendency to hand out caps to teenagers, nor do AC Milan have a great reputation for shunning experienced heads in favour of starlets. But one player bridging the gap both domestically and internationally right now is Stephan El Shaarawy.

The 19-year-old forward made his Azzurri debut in the friendly against England in Berne in August and has since gone on a magnificent run of form which has seen him carry an ailing Milan side on his back. A run of five goals in 11 days has sparked a recent upturn in results that has postponed the death knell for Rossoneri boss Massimiliano Allegri.

Now his international coach Cesare Prandelli could be set to hand him a competitive debut in the famous blue shirt as Italy travel to Armenia for Friday’s World Cup qualifier. But, even if he does not see any game time in Yerevan or at San Siro against Denmark on Tuesday, his 59-minute showing against England ensured that he joins a small band of Italians to appear for their country at senior level before turning 20.

But El Shaarawy’s next job is to ensure that he replicates his recent performances for both Milan and La Nazionale for some time to come. Others who have in the past looked set to go on to bigger and better things have followed their Italy debuts with downturns in form belying their immense potential.

The Saviour | His form at Milan has been the one positive after a summer of key exits

Some players were destined for greatness from a young age. Giuseppe Bergomi was famously thrust into the unforgettable 1982 World Cup clash with Brazil at the age of 18, with only a single cap in a friendly against East Germany to his name. After performing admirably in the Paolo Rossi-inspired 3-2 triumph, the defender would go on to earn a World Cup winner’s medal in only his fourth game for his country and later captained the national side to Euro ’88 and at the home World Cup in 1990.

One of his defensive partners at Italia ’90 was also his captain when he made a surprise return to the national side – after seven years in the wilderness – in time for the 1998 World Cup in France, as Paolo Maldini continued a glorious career of his own having also been a teenage debutant for Italy.

Though Maldini was never able to emulate Bergomi by winning a World Cup, he was a runner-up in 1994 and also at Euro 2000, before eventually hanging up his boots in 2002 as Italy’s most-capped player at the time, with 126 appearances in the famous shirt. He remains one of the most storied defenders in football history, and it is seen as one of those quirks of fate that he would never get his hands on an international trophy.

Like Maldini, Gianni Rivera had been a teenage prodigy, a Milan legend and a Mondiale finalist, but he was also a part of the successful Euro ’68 winning Azzurri side. And before him the likes of Giampiero Boniperti and Giuseppe Meazza had debuted as teenagers with the national team, with Meazza scoring a phenomenal 33 international goals on the way to becoming a two-time World Cup winner.

NOTABLE TEENAGE ITALIAN INTERNATIONALS
18 years, 103 days GIUSEPPE BERGOMI
81 caps, 6 goals
18 years, 128 days GIAMPIERO BONIPERTI
38 caps, 8 goals
18 years, 155 days DAVIDE SANTON
7 caps, 0 goals*
18 years, 268 days GIANNI RIVERA 60 caps, 14 goals
19 years, 170 days GIUSEPPE MEAZZA 53 caps, 33 goals
19 years, 181 days ROBERTO MANCINI 36 caps, 4 goals
19 years, 274 days GIANLUIGI BUFFON 122 caps, 0 goals*
19 years, 278 days PAOLO MALDINI 126 caps, 7 goals
19 years, 292 days STEPHAN EL SHAARAWY
1 cap, 0 goals*
19 years, 363 days MARIO BALOTELLI
14 caps, 4 goals

* denotes active player

Of course, Italy’s most recent World Cup success was achieved with the help of another former teenage sensation, in the shape of Gianluigi Buffon. He made his international debut in a crucial play-off in the snow in Russia in 1997 and fulfilled his potential on the global stage by shutting out the opposition from open play as Marcello Lippi’s side marched to glory in Germany in 2006.

But there is one recent example of a player who has not quite hit the same heights as some of his young contemporaries, as Davide Santon’s career has seemingly reached an early crossroads.

Handed his Inter debut by Jose Mourinho just days after his 18th birthday, the full-back was immediately spoken about in the same breath as Maldini, with the mix of youthful exuberance and composure, along with the ability to play at left-back as a right footer, marking him out as an early contender for the berth in the national side that had gone largely unfilled since the Milan star’s retirement.

However, while team-mate Mario Balotelli would go on to excel in the Italy side, Santon has struggled with injuries and form for large spells during the last three years. Since making his Azzurri debut in June 2009 against Northern Ireland, he has played only twice in competitive internationals, with the last of those coming in the dead rubber against Cyprus in November 2009, when Italy had already qualified for the World Cup in South Africa.

From such a promising prospect in his early days at Inter, Santon has suddenly become the warning for the likes of El Shaarawy and Marco Verratti of what can become of a young prodigy. His form since his move to Newcastle United last year has failed to reach a level sufficient enough to earn the call of Prandelli, despite an apparent lack of quality full-backs at the coach’s disposal. Even during the recent controversial absence of Domenico Criscito, Santon’s name was a long way down the pecking order of potential replacements.

So for El Shaarawy, and for Italy, it is of vital importance that the Milan forward can continue his current streak for years to come. If he can, the national side may well have another future legend in their ranks.

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Santon and Zambrotta interest Napoli

Napoli are considering moves for either Davide Santon or Gianluca Zambrotta, as Partenopei coach Walter Mazzarri looks to bolster his defence.

The Serie A outfit, who finished fifth last season and won the Coppa Italia, have missed out on their first choice target, Lyon’s Ali Cissokho, due to financial complications.

With the deal for the France international apparently dead, and long-term target Federico Balzaretti electing to join Roma, Santon and Zambrotta have shot to the top of Mazzarri’s shopping list. Fans are wondering how will the club be able to buy these players.

The versatile Santon has insisted that he is settled at Newcastle after helping the Premier League side qualify for this season’s Europa League, but coach Alan Pardew could be willing to listen to offers for the Italy international.

Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis is keen on the Santon deal, although doubts persist regarding the 21-year-old’s experience and tactical nous.

Released by Milan this summer, Zambrotta – now 35 – represents a more experienced option for both Mazzarri and De Laurentiis.

The 2006 World Cup winner is attracting interest from a number of foreign suitors, but may prefer to join Mazzarri’s innovative side and remain in Serie A next season.

Newcastle interested in Santon-Bojan swap deal

EXCLUSIVE
By Vittorio Campanile

Newcastle United are keen on bringing in Roma forward Bojan Krkic this summer, and are prepared to sacrifice Davide Santon in order to push through a deal, Goal.com understands.

The 21-year-old attacker struggled to adapt during his first season at the Stadio Olimpico, having arrived on a two-year contract from Barcelona in July 2011, leading to suggestions new coach Zdenek Zeman is looking to move him on.

And the Magpies have stepped forward as potential suitors, but any agreement would still allow the Blaugrana to exercise their option of bringing him back to Camp Nou at the end of the upcoming campaign.

Roma secured Bojan, who scored seven goals in 33 Serie A appearances for the Giallorossi last season, in a 13 million transfer, but would have to pay another 28m if they wanted to retain the one-cap Spain man beyond 2012-13.

Given the expensive nature of a potential transfer and the capital club’s search for a new full-back, Newcastle are willing to include Santon in a bid to further convince Roma to part with the player before the end of the summer transfer window.

The defender joined the Premier League outfit for 6m from Inter last August and, despite starting slowly at the Sports Direct Arena, eventually made 24 appearances under manager Alan Pardew, helping the side to a fifth-placed finish.

Nonetheless, the Italy Under-21 international would be happy to return to the peninsula, but only with a prestigious club, and Roma could be his next port of call if Bojan decides his future lies in England.

However, while a transfer could well be in the pipeline, Bojan Krkic is believed not to be keen on making the move as he believes he would flourish under the tutelage of Zeman – a coach renowned for his attacking philosophy.

Santon commits to Newcastle and hopes France full-back Debuchy will join

Newcastle defender Davide Santon insists he will not be leaving the club to return to Serie A, and is hopeful that they can sign Lille defender Mathieu Debuchy.

The 21-year-old enjoyed a good first season in the Premier League after joining from Inter, making 27 appearances as the Magpies defied expectations and only narrowly missed out on the Champions League.

Santon has been linked to a move back to Italy with Roma being touted as a potential destination, but the Italian full-back says he has only just arrived in England and feels it is too soon to pack up and leave.

He told calciomercato.com: “I know Roma are looking for a right-back and they showed interest in me some time ago, but Newcastle immediately refused to give me up.

“That’s okay for me because I have familiarised myself in England and I have no plans to move. I’ve only been here for a year and it is too early to pack up and come back to Italy.”

Meanwhile, Newcastle themselves have been linked with Lille and France right-back Mathieu Debuchy.

However Santon, who can play on either side, says he doesn’t feel threatened by Debuchy’s potential arrival.

“Debuchy to Newcastle? I am calm,” Santon said.

“Pardew had told me that he had thought about playing me on the right, but also that another right-back would come.

“Debuchy or whoever, is welcome, especially if it is a good player who can help the team. Then, we’ll see who the coach decides to pick.”

Italy can reach the final at World Cup 2014 … and here is how

COMMENT

The manner in which the adventure ended will take some getting over. Italy left Kiev in the early hours of Monday morning without the Henri Delaunay trophy amongst their carry-on luggage, having been handed a good old-fashioned spanking by the irrepressible Spain.

But once the initial regrets are washed away in a few days time, Cesare Prandelli and the FIGC will be able to see their side’s Euro 2012 campaign for what it was always meant to be – the first step on the road back to the top. After the disgrace of their early exit from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, this finals tournament has been nothing short of a miracle, giving real reason for optimism ahead of their next tilt at the Mondiali.

The negatives need to be learnt from and then immediately consigned to history. The positives are what need to be remembered and embraced, because there have been plenty. And if the right things are done to harness the newly-regained faith of the Azzurri faithful, then preparation for the trip to Bulgaria in September must begin almost immediately. Because that is the attitude that saw them exceed expectations this time around, and it will also be key if they are to be present in Rio de Janeiro in 741 days time.

First and foremost, if the tricolore is to be one of the flags on display on the Maracana pitch before kick-off on World Cup final night, Prandelli needs to stay in charge. His recent admission that he misses the day-to-day aspect of club coaching has put the frighteners up Italy fans, but if there is one positive to be taken from the 4-0 defeat to La Roja in Kiev, it is the sense of unfinished business. If teams give their very best and fall short, sometimes you have to admit you have done all you can, but the commissario tecnico will surely feel that he can learn from the events of Sunday night, which marked his first competitive defeat as an international coach, and complete the job he signed up for two years ago.

Prandelli & Balotelli | The two main keys behind Italy’s push for 2014 glory

Within his squad, there will inevitably be some changes, despite the firm footing on which they have placed themselves over the past month. Looking beyond the turnover on the fringes of the panel, there will need to be some sacrifices in and around the first team too.

One thing that definitely should not change from the current set-up is the main focus up front. Mario Balotelli is the future of Calcio, and his importance to Italy over the coming years must not be underestimated. Antonio Cassano may well remain in the set-up, but if Giuseppe Rossi can make a sufficient return from his double knee injury nightmare, then he could well be the perfect second headache for opposition defences.

The next 24 months will also be huge for Sebastian Giovinco. If he can make his transfer back to Juventus a success, then a regular national shirt will surely follow. Stephan El Shaarawy could well become a reliable squad member too.

In goal, injury permitting, Gianluigi Buffon will remain. Emiliano Viviano is likely to force his way beyond Salvatore Sirigu and Morgan De Sanctis to grab the understudy slot, but it would take a phenomenal run for him to get even close to deposing the Azzurri skipper.

In front of Buffon there is a lot to ponder. Ignazio Abate has not quite proven himself as an international quality defender yet, and will hopefully face a strong challenge from Davide Santon for the right-back role in the coming months and years. Cristian Maggio may still serve some purpose as a wing-back, but he too has been restricted by his lack of defensive ability.

On the other flank, Federico Balzaretti will be 32 be the time the opening game in Sao Paulo takes place, meaning his body’s ability to cope with the passage of time will have a big say on whether he can still step up to the mark come 2014. Domenico Criscito will surely re-enter the equation as first choice just so long as he is proven innocent of any wrong-doing with regards to the Calcioscommesse enquiries.

Centrally, Leonardo Bonucci has to go. His inability to spot and foil danger, even when superbly placed to do so, is lethal at the top of the international game, with just such a lapse handing Jordi Alba the killer second goal against Spain. Andrea Barzagli has not been a consistently excellent centre-half, but his form since signing for Juventus suggests he could well still be a mainstay come 2014, although it is likely to be his final tournament.

Giorgio Chiellini will return to the centre-back spot he fills so much more convincingly than the left-back role, while Angelo Ogbonna should be knocking on the door by then. Other candidates to monitor will include Marco Capuano of Pescara, Bari’s Alessandro Crescenzi and Rubin Kazan’s Salvatore Bocchetti.

In the engine room, much will depend on Andrea Pirlo. The regista has been the national team’s heartbeat in recent times, but as he turns 35 just before the World Cup, Italy may have to come to terms with a less influential Pirlo. Of all of the options available should the Juventus man suffer a drop in form or fitness, Marco Verratti seems the best prepared to step up. The Pescara man was even called up by Prandelli in his original 32-man squad for the Euros, suggesting he is laying the groundwork for a gradual promotion to the big stage.

Beyond that, not too many changes should be needed. There may become a time when a serious question needs to be asked in the Claudio Marchisio versus Antonio Nocerino debate, but the AC Milan man needs to continue his great form at domestic level.

Ahead of them, Italy desperately needs a trequartista. Not Thiago Motta, not Riccardo Montolivo, but an actual trequartista. Neither have the tools necessary to change the course of a game, which is the key ingredient necessary from a true Italian No.10. There is a huge dearth of talent in this department, with Diego Fabbrini and Lorenzo Insigne – the best creative players to come through the Under-21 ranks of late – having often been shunted to the left for the Azzurrini.

Insigne should be nursed through in a similar fashion to Verratti, giving him every possible opportunity to make a smooth transition to the senior side, with Fabbrini a back-up if his game time at Udinese increases sufficiently over the next two years.

All in all, Prandelli has plenty to ponder, but also more than enough to keep him smiling. While he will not have any Del Pieros, Baggios and Tottis to choose between, he has a wide enough panel to suggest that the achievements in Poland and Ukraine can at least be matched.

So have a couple of down days, Italy. But then stick out your chests and show your pride once more. If La Nazionale play their cards right, it could be a feeling you will get used to all over again before long.