KEITA BALDE DIAO
Kicked out of Barcelona’s youth team for putting an ice cube in a team-mate’s bed, Keita Balde Diao has gradually reinvigorated his career with Lazio following a €300,000 move in the summer of 2011. The 21-year-old broke into the first team with a series of exciting individual displays in the 2013-14 campaign, but it wasn’t until this term that he nailed down a regular starting berth.
Previously dogged by inconsistency and a lack of end product, Keita has been one of Lazio’s most effective attacking players since Simone Inzaghi was appointed head coach on a permanent basis. Considering Inzaghi spent his first six years of coaching in the club’s youth ranks it is perhaps unsurprising to see him getting the best from his younger talent – of which there is plenty – and Keita, with five goals and two assists on Serie A duty, has been much improved under the former striker’s auspices.
With a potent blend of raw pace and remarkable dribbling skill, the Senegal international is a tricky task for defenders in one-on-one situations. He enjoys cutting in from the left flank, a movement that often allows him to make use of his quick feet and set up opportunities for one-two combinations with team-mates, crosses across the penalty area or, if possible, a shot.
Lucas Boye arrived at Torino to little fanfare last July, but his impact on the pitch was almost immediate. Just 12 minutes into his competitive debut against Pro Vercelli he scored with a fine half-volley from outside the penalty area, announcing himself to the Granata faithful in the most memorable way possible.
Unfortunately, the 20-year-old Argentine hasn’t shone quite so brightly since. Indeed, in 15 league appearances he has failed to find the net once. Evidently he remains a raw prospect, but with exceptionally quick feet, dribbling skill and an eye for the extravagant, he is also an intriguing one.
Competition for a place in Torino’s front three is intense. The free-scoring Andrea Belotti holds down the striker role, while Adem Ljajic and Iago Falque provide quality from the flanks. Throw in the speedy Josef Martinez and the recently signed Juan Iturbe (on loan from Roma) and it’s no wonder Boye is struggling for game time. The ex-River Plate man has an array of tricks up his sleeve, but he may have to marry them with patience if he is to fulfil his potential in Serie A.
Gerson Santos da Silva or, if you prefer, simply Gerson, is one of the latest and most refined products of the Brazilian football school, having arrived at Roma last summer from Fluminense. His season thus far hasn’t gone as well as expected for two reasons. Firstly, he's still too slow for the Italian game. Secondly, coach Luciano Spalletti sees him as a defensive midfielder, whereas he played mostly as an offensive midfielder in Brazil, and he has yet to settle into the new position.
However, within his Roma contract there exists a clause regarding a bonus should he ever win the Ballon d'Or, which says a lot about Gerson’s talent. If inspired, he can open the way to goal for team-mates. His left foot is precise and his mind is gifted with an uncommon vision.
“Gerson's not ready, he has to wait,” Spalletti argued last August. But things are slowly improving for the player known as ‘the Brazilian Pogba’ and, as he gathers minutes, he comes closer to fulfilling his great potential.
Club: Atalanta (on loan from Napoli)
When Napoli picked Alberto Grassi up from Atalanta in January 2016, supporters thought he was a purchase to be proud of. Technical, clever, elegant in his movements and very promising, the 20-year-old midfielder displayed a vast array of qualities in the first half of last season, when he became a regular at Atalanta. Unfortunately, Partenopei fans were never given the chance to see the player at work after Grassi suffered a severe injury on his first training day at Napoli.
The knee surgery he underwent prevented him from playing until last summer, when Napoli had a stroke of genius in loaning Grassi to Atalanta, an environment he's familiar with and where he should have opportunities to recover quickly from his injury problems. The strategy seems fruitful for now, with the youngster slowly regaining confidence and making five appearances.
Grassi's growth is encouraging and, if things keep going this way, next summer Napoli could have a midfielder that can be Jorginho, Allan and Amadou Diawara all rolled into one.
If it's true that a good beginning bodes well, Cristiano Lombardi's Serie A experience should be great.
After two loans – one to Trapani in Serie B and one to Ancona in Lega Pro – the striker from Viterbo left a good impression on the new coach Simone Inzaghi during 2016 pre-season, and it was decided he would remain at Lazio. And, on the opening day, away to Atalanta, Lombardi scored one of the four goals that led to his side claiming all three points. All in all, up to this point Lombardi has collected eight appearances, with Inzaghi putting a great deal of trust in him.
One of the reasons or this is that Lombardi can be employed in every position within the attacking line. He's fast enough to run down the flanks and has the requisite technique to play behind the centre-forward, but his finest quality is undoubtedly great dedication in retrieving the ball from opponents.
An honest face, a plain haircut, great dribbling and a right foot that allows him to score goals 'from his house’ as they say in Italy when a player shoots from long range: this is Alessandro Murgia, a 20-year-old midfielder from Rome. His many goals scored for Lazio’s youth team didn’t go unnoticed by head coach Simone Inzaghi, who started his coaching career with Biancocelesti’s youngsters and saw Murgia develop.
“My dad enrolled me in a football school quite late, I was already eight or nine years old. Until then, dad himself was my only coach,” Murgia stated recently. “I owe it all to Inzaghi. He raised me, he knew how to handle me from every point of view.” Murgia is certainly one of the most interesting prospects in Italian football at the moment and he has already begun to repay his coach's faith, scoring his first Serie A goal in a draw against Torino.
If Roma, who sold Lorenzo Pellegrini to Sassuolo in 2015, want him back at Trigoria at any cost, then the 20-year-old must have something special. Pellegrini is, hands down, the most interesting young midfielder of the new Italian school.
Born in Rome in 1996, he was never given the chance to debut in Serie A with the team of his city, but the Neroverdi, who carefully analysed his matches with Roma’s youth team, didn't think twice when they saw the possibility to bring him to Emilia-Romagna. Under the wise guidance of Eusebio Di Francesco, Pellegrini has since grown into a brilliant yet concrete central midfielder.
He's one of those players that make people buy tickets. With his skills, his Totti-style backheels and a tendency to push on into the box at every possible opportunity, he's a joy for the eyes. He can also use both left and right foot, invariably to provide assists for team-mates.
At the end of 2016, Sampdoria were reportedly set to sell Pedro Pereira to Benfica but, as for now, he remains in Liguria. This is probably because the Blucerchiati realise just how great the Portuguese’s potential is.
Born in Lisbon and brought up in the club that is now trying to re-sign him, Pereira is a full-back whose strong points are timing, vision, technique and agility. When defending, his movements remind of Kōstas Manōlas in that he's faster than most of his opponents, knows how to tackle and often finds himself in the right place. But when attacking he's different to the Greek centre-back.
Pereira may seem clumsy when running, but he's assured enough to silence rivals with occasional unexpected pieces of skill and, when approaching the by-line, he has the quality to put the ball in the box in the proper way.
He seems now to have found his place as a regular within Sampdoria's line-up and, as time goes by, more and more clubs will surely notice his strength, if they haven't done so already. The queue outside club president Massimo Ferrero's door is doomed to grow bigger.
“Thrown into the fray by (Giuseppe) Iachini, he showed coldness and tactical discipline. (Mohamed) Salah and Maicon were playing on his flank but he never got confused, and even tried to be dangerous.” Those were the words used by La Gazzetta dello Sport on 26 February 2016, some days after Giuseppe Pezzella's Serie A debut. With an injury to Achraf Lazaar, Palermo coach Iachini could do nothing but rely on the 19-year-old full-back on that day, who performed well despite a 5-0 defeat to Roma.
Pezzella was discovered by the Rosanero scouts while playing for Monteruscello, a team in his hometown near Naples. In just three years, with great humility and willpower, he went from the under-17 team to Serie A, showing uncommon dedication, good technique and a left foot more refined than the average Italian full-back, plus a powerful physique (he's 6’1” tall).
Many people already compare Pezzella to Milan’s Mattia De Sciglio due to his elegance and ability to play on both flanks and even as a side midfielder if required. But for now he's just a boy with his feet planted on the ground and his name in many a scout’s notepad.
Club: Bologna (on loan from Roma)
One looks at Umar Sadiq and immediately thinks he's not fit for Serie A. Maybe not even for football in general. This is probably what people used to think of Peter Crouch when he first wore a football shirt, but this didn't prevent him from scoring plenty of goals. And nor is it stopping Sadiq.
Last season, the Nigerian centre-forward's supremacy was quite embarrassing for the opponents of Roma’s youth team—he scored 14 goals in just nine appearances between Campionato Primavera and Coppa Italia Primavera, five in nine appearances in the UEFA Youth League, plus two in six games in Serie A. Such impressive numbers speak for themselves.
In the summer, Roma decided to loan the 19-year-old to Bologna in order for him to avoid one more useless season in the youth team, where he's too strong for rival defenders. Unfortunately he has missed most of the season so far due to an ankle injury but, if the surgery shows positive results, the long-limbed striker will be ready to show everybody his killer instinct remains among the grown-ups.
Join in the discussion on Twitter: @GentlemanUltra #G50
Words by Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14 and Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman
Franco is a son of Rome who grew up admiring Totti's assists and chasing a ball through the streets of the capital's suburbs. Now he spends most of his time watching football matches, regardless of the league, the country or the level. He also writes for @JustFootball.
Blair is co-editor of The Gentleman Ultra. He is also a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, uMAXit, These Football Times and others.