As Giuseppe Rossi battles to be fit in time for this summer’s World Cup, the Fiorentina striker’s absence has paved the way for other contenders to stake their claim for a place in the Italy squad that will fly to Brazil at the beginning of June.
Cesare Prandelli had already earmarked Rossi to partner Mario Balotelli in the Azzurri attack for the opening group game against England, but those best-laid plans have now been thrown into disarray. A late challenge from Livorno’s Leandro Rinaudo on the first day back after the winter break left not only Fiorentina but the whole country fearing the worst for Serie A's current top goalscorer.
An initial diagnosis revealed spraining to the same right knee Rossi had torn a ligament in two years ago and then re-injured six months later in training, but a subsequent visit to world-renowned knee specialist Richard Steadman in America revealed further damage to the anterior cruciate ligament.
Steadman, who had operated on the player previously, would not be drawn on what course of action was needed, and the player will have another three weeks to wait until a further appointment. Any surgery would be another bitter blow for Rossi, who has twice battled back from operations and this season pushed the Viola towards a Champions League spot with his 14 league goals.
Prandelli will already be making contingency plans if Rossi fails to recover in time, and weighing up whether to start with two out-and-out frontmen or build his team around Balotelli as a lone striker. While the defence is a watertight Juventus back-line and the midfield compact, there have been problems finishing off opposition sides.
Italy have drawn their last four matches, with only Rossi, Balotelli and Pablo Osvaldo on the scoresheet of their forwards. The latter has made little impact at Southampton and the former Roma man could be set for a return to Serie A with Inter on loan, although it seems he has never been far from Prandelli’s thoughts.
In the meantime, of those currently on the home front there are a number of candidates looking to catch the coach’s eye.
Leading the way had been the antithesis of Rossi, Luca Toni. The gangly veteran, a member of the World Cup-winning squad of 2006, had long been written off but his nine goals for Hellas Verona have taken the newly promoted side into European contention.
Coming into Sunday’s meeting with Napoli, the 36-year-old had scored four goals in his last two matches but looked every year of his age as he creaked under the pressure of double marking from Federico Fernandez and Raul Albiol. When a chance presented itself for an equaliser his firm shot was aimed straight at the goalkeeper as Napoli went on to win 3-0.
Alberto Gilardino is another 30-something still finding the net but with ever-diminishing returns. Further down the age scale Matteo Destro, Manolo Gabbiadini and Ciro Immobile could be youthful surprises. Although Immobile is currently living up to his surname on the treatment table with a hamstring problem, the Torino striker had struck a rich vein of form by taking his goal tally to nine.
Destro, on the other hand, is just coming back from a long-term knee problem but, like his Italy Under-21 team-mate, has not found goals difficult to come by. He netted three times in December, while Gabbiadini has five goals in a struggling Sampdoria side.
However, there is one player who could usurp the lot come Prandelli's squad announcement.
Domenico Berardi’s rise from unknown to potential star of the future is a true feelgood tale. He only turned 19 last August, but the rangy striker scored all four goals – known as a ‘poker’ in Italy - in relegation-threatened Sassuolo’s 4-3 win against AC Milan on Sunday (a result which cost Massimiliano Allegri his job). By doing so he became the youngest player to have netted that many goals in a top-flight game - and the first to have done so against Milan.
That amazing feat took the unassuming teenager to 11 goals, equal with Carlos Tevez in second place in the goalscoring charts, and sees him eclipse the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti at the same stages of their careers. At 19 it took Del Piero took 17 league games to net seven goals.
Manchester United were reported to have watched Berardi last season in Serie B, but it was Juventus who moved quickly to secure his services for the future when they signed him in September before loaning him back to the newly promoted club.
However, unlike Del Piero or Totti, Berardi was never destined for the big time when kicking a ball around the streets. The very fact that he is now playing professionally came about by accident some four years ago when he was visiting his brother at university in Modena.
He had all but given up hope of playing football, having been released by Cosenza’s soccer school at 13, so he travelled north from the family home in Calabria to get a taste of university life. His parents hoped he would follow in the footsteps of his elder sibling. Instead, however, he returned with a youth contract in his pocket.
The Berardi brothers had been playing five-a-side football with some other students, and one of them was so impressed by the gangly teen with the quick feet that he contacted youth coach Luciano Carlino of local side Sassuolo who, like all lower-league clubs, were always on the lookout for new talent. They offered him a trial.
It was a shock for the family to see their son leave home so young, but with the promise that his education would not suffer - his father is a civil servant - they gave their blessing. From there Berardi’s life changed.
A 13-goal season in the youth setup led to an Italy youth call-up, but rather than head out on loan as most promising youngsters do, Berardi was promoted to the first team by coach Eusebio Di Francesco at a time when he still had to pass his driving test, was looking out for his favourite club Inter’s results and even admitted that he had posters of Leo Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic still adorning his bedroom wall.
Eleven goals in Sassuolo’s promotion campaign last season had the scouts queuing up, but his move to Juventus is not only the champions’ gain but Italy’s as well.
There was little time to celebrate on Sunday evening after his four-goal demolition of Milan. After dedicating his strikes to the under-pressure Di Francesco and team-mate Francesco Acerbi, who is undergoing treatment for testicular cancer, Berardi was off to join up with the Italy Under-21 squad for the first time. His progress through the international ranks has been held back due to a suspension, after he failed to turn up to an Under-19 camp which fell the day after Sassuolo won promotion to Serie A, claiming he slept through his alarm.
There's no doubt he'll be more alert when he answers the call from Prandelli ahead of Italy’s pre-World Cup friendly against Spain in March.
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