While most eyes were focused on Old Trafford on Tuesday night, for the Champions League clash between Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain, some football fans might have overlooked that another game was happening in Rome. At the Olimpico, Portuguese champions Porto visited AS Roma and even though there were names like Dzeko, Pepe and Iker Casillas on the pitch, it was a 19 year old italian kid who stole the headlines.
When the game was shaken between the two sides, holding to a 0-0 draw, Nicolò Zaniolo found the back of the net after an assist by Edin Dzeko. The young midfielder would still have time to score another one in a rebound, after another attempt by his Bosnian teammate hit the post.
Unfortunately for Roma, Porto managed to score a precious goal in the last ten minutes, by substitute Adrian Lopez, closing the scoreline 2-1 and postponing the decision to the second leg at Estádio do Dragão. However, the brace scored by Zaniolo will be an unforgettable night for the young gialorossi, who became the youngest italian ever to score in the Champions League.
Zaniolo was born in Massa, a city in the italian region of Tuscany, 94km away from Florence. Naturally, the passion for football took Nicolò through the Fiorentina youth system, but he was surprisingly released by the “Viola” in the last day of January 2016, joining Serie B side Virtus Entella afterwards. He would only had his first professional debut one year later though, in March 2017, in a 3-2 win against Benevento.
In the following summer, Internazionale took Zaniolo to Milan, for a fee of €1.8 million, but the midfielder only played for the youth squad, named Primavera in Italy. He finished top scorer of the Inter Primavera squad on the 2017-18 season, scoring 13 goals but never actually played a competitive match for the first team.
His time at Milan was cut short, when he got involved in Radja Nainggolan deal with AS Roma, last summer, along with Davide Santon. However, the trade deal turned up to be unexpectedly more profiting for Roma, since Zaniolo has already scored for 3 times in Serie A in 14 appearances, while Nainggolan has only scored twice for Inter in 16 games. The italian youngster has also made 2 assists, one more than the experienced Belgian.
Nicolò scored his first goal for the team in the day after Christmas, dribbling past two defenders of Sassuolo and scoring the last goal on a 3-1 win. Some weeks later, he got another one opening the score sheet on a 3-2 win against Torino and later secured a point on a 1-1 draw against AC Milan. His moment of glory came this week, undeniably, keeping Roma breathing in the Champions League, the only competition where they are still alive and where they have been as semifinalists last year.Roma is currently failing to meet the expectations in Serie A, sitting in the 6th position, outside Champions League spots and with a 25 points distance to leaders Juventus. Adding to their league situation, Roma were humiliated in the Coppa Italia by Fiorentina, suffering an astounding 7-1 loss. After being eliminated from the cup and seeing the top league spots further and further away, coach Di Francesco has been the main target of criticism and Zaniolo recent performances might have saved his job… at least for now.
He is also part of the generation who is giving brand new blood to the italian national team, who has failed to repeat the success of the last decade, even failing to qualify for World Cup in Russia. Zaniolo was part of the under 19 team who reached the final of the European cup in Seinajoki, Finland, scoring one goal in the tournament.
Sadly, Italy was defeated 4-3 in an epic final against Portugal, but Nicolò performance seemed to be enough for his first call-up in September, for the senior italian squad. Roberto Mancini called the midfielder for UEFA Nation League games against Poland and Portugal, even though he hadn’t a single minute played in Serie A. He hasn’t made his international debut for “La Squadra Azzurra” yet, but if he keeps his current performances it won’t take long.
If Zaniolo follows the steps of AS Roma legend Francesco Totti, he surely has everything to succeed. Still, it is too soon to say if Zaniolo success will be cut short into a one season wonder or if will he be another superstar that Inter will regret leaving too soon (remember Phillipe Coutinho?).
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