Looking across Europe’s major divisions so far this season, there are few surprises about the identity of the top goalscorers. Cristiano Ronaldo leads the way in La Liga, Luis Suarez in the Premier League, Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Ligue 1. All four were either top goalscorer, or runner-up, in their league last season.
In Italy, however, there’s something of a surprise – because this season’s top goalscorer hasn’t scored a goal for more than a year. Following two extremely serious knee injuries in recent weeks, there was some speculation about whether Fiorentina’s Giuseppe Rossi would ever play football again. To everyone’s astonishment, Rossi has come back even stronger and more prolific than ever.
Rossi’s development into Serie A’s leading marksman is something of an accident. First, it must be acknowledged that a few of his strikes have been from penalties rather than from open play.
More importantly, however, was Fiorentina’s loss of Mario Gomez to injury. The big German was signed in the summer to spearhead Fiorentina’s attack, but he’s been out for more than two months, and Vincenzo Montella – once a prolific striker himself – doesn’t have an obvious replacement in that mould, with youngster Ryder Matos yet to convince.
Instead, Rossi has become Fiorentina’s primary striker. It’s a role he’s not really accustomed to – he’s more naturally a second striker, compared to Alessandro Del Piero rather than Pippo Inzaghi, as a youngster. He thrived at Villarreal playing up front with Nilmar in a very fluid, attack-minded side – both forwards would continually peel off into the channels, creating space for others to break into.
He isn’t a typical number nine.
But Rossi has interpreted the role in an interesting manner. His match-up with Roma’s Adam Ljajic – effectively the man he replaced at Fiorentina – last weekend was very interesting. Ljajic played a standard ‘false nine’ role in place of the injured Francesco Totti, always coming deep towards play and leaving the opposition centre-backs without anyone to mark.
Rossi positioned himself higher up against the centre-backs and received the ball less frequently, but in more dangerous positions.
While a quick player, Rossi doesn’t really rely on his pace in the manner of Jermain Defoe, for example. Instead he has three main qualities. First, there’s his movement, which is intelligent and highly unpredictable – he can go in behind defenders, but also come short to receive balls to feet.
Opposition centre-backs aren’t entirely sure whether to stick tight or drop off slightly, and he’s one of the most difficult strikers in Italy for defenders to face.
Second, there’s his link-up play. Having spent so long with Villarreal, at one point the only side in Spain capable of outpassing Barcelona, his passing qualities are obvious. He likes playing one-twos with onrushing team-mates – often the wingers, like Juan Vargas, Joaquin and Juan Cuadrado, but also Borja Valero, another excellent player who joined Fiorentina from Villarreal.
Many of Rossi’s chances come after quick exchanges on the edge of the box, and when not scoring himself he can tee up others.
Third, there’s his finishing – which seems better than ever. Now playing close to goal, and perhaps because his physical qualities have declined slightly because of his knee problems, Rossi seems to have worked on his finishing.
He’s extremely calm and composed in front of goal, often taking chances early because his first touch is so often perfect. His best performance was in the 4-2 victory over Juventus – with Fiorentina were 2-0 down at the break, Rossi inspired an amazing comeback.
What’s most encouraging, however, is that Rossi has started doing the things you expect of natural number nines. His movement when the ball is out wide has become very good, and although he’s just 5ft 8in he has an excellent leap. He rarely stays at the far-post to meet crosses, instead attempting to beat opposition centre-backs to near-post balls.
Summer signing Gomez had another injury setback this week – a tendon infection has delayed his return yet further. With Rossi in this form, it’s not a significant problem. Following in the footsteps of previous Fiorentina heroes like Gabriel Batistuta and Luca Toni, Rossi is Serie A’s deadliest striker.
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