Europa League has provided the ideal platform for teenagers and young twenty-somethings to excel for the Serie A contenders.
AC Milan, Lazio and Atalanta youngsters dispelling stereotypes over Italian football's reliance on old guard
These are early stages in the Europa League, but through the dense mass of 48 clubs on the group-stage starting grid, you can already make out one flag waving proud and high above the rest.
It is Italy’s tricolor. Three clubs, three wins from the first round and 11 goals between them. Bravo to AC Milan, Lazio and the newcomers, Atalanta.
Bravo to the bambini, too, the kids, because the competition is providing a platform for a battering of one old stereotype: that Italian football is a landscape where age and experience are deemed the best allies. That Serie A clubs with ambitions to finish in the higher positions tend to trust veterans rather than tyros.
Fact is, Italy is becoming quite the hothouse for teens and young twenty-somethings.
A decade ago, when AC Milan won the last of the pair of Uefa Champions League titles they claimed this century, they were famously long in the tooth. Paolo Maldini was almost 39 when he lifted the trophy. In that 2006/07 season he shared defensive duties with then 41-year-old Alessandro Costacurta.
This season’s European adventure, which started back in July in the qualifying phase of the Europa League, may represent a step-down in prestige for a club of Milan’s history, but it offers opportunity for the up-and-comings at a club that invested heavily in new personnel over the summer.
Milan strode into the group phase via a handsome aggregate win over the Macedonians, Shkendija, and by the time they completed it, Matteo Gabbia, 17, was making his senior debut in a defence including the dashing 20-year-old right wing-back Davide Calabria and Alessio Romagnoli, the composed central defender who is still only 22 but has been a full Italy international for almost a year.
The last goal of that tie, the one that secured the 1-0 away win, was scored by Patrick Cutrone, and set up by Manuel Locatelli. Both of them will turn 20 in January, and neither are players manager Vicenzo Montella easily leaves out of his line ups these days. Cutrone, says Montella, “has matured at a fantastic rate, he’s excellent in the penalty box”.
The implication is that there are parts of the striker’s all-round game still to polish, but Montella resisted the possibility of loaning Cutrone out this season to give him more playing time than he might achieve at Milan, given the competition from the new arrivals Nikola Kalinic, Fabio Borini and Andre Silva, the 21-year-old Portugal international signed for just under €40 million (Dh172.2m) from Porto.
Cutrone responded with two goals in the Europa League and one each in the first two Serie A matches of the campaign.
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Milan, whose precociously gifted giant of a goalkeeper Gigi Donnarumma should reach the landmark of 100 senior matches for Milan well before his 19th birthday in February, have used five teenagers in the Europa League so far. They host Rijeka at San Siro on Thursday night hoping the likes of Locatelli and Crutone can inject some verve back into a season that has faltered a little, with two Serie A defeats this month.
Lazio, who host Belgium’s Zulte Waregem, inflicted the first of those, a 4-1 win in Rome which they followed up with three points from their opening European match. They had trailed Vitesse Arnhem in Holland until midway through the second half. Their winning goal in a 3-2 win was struck by Alessandro Murgia, a midfielder of whom much is expected. He turned 21 in August.
As for Atalanta, few clubs in Italy have such a renown as incubators of young talent. Their success in finishing fourth in the top division last season – a record high – was followed by the expected predatory lunges from bigger-budget clubs. Milan signed up the 23-year-old Andrea Conti, an attacking full-back, and the Ivorian midfielder Franck Kessie, 20.
Atalanta managed to keep hold of defender Mattia Caldara, sold to Juventus in January but immediately loaned back until next June, and Andrea Petagna, the forward who won his first Italy cap in March.
They were among five players aged 23 or under who had the wherewithal to thrash Everton 3-0 in the club’s first ever Europa League fixture. Thursday’s trip to Olympique Lyonnais will be a sterner examination on their steep learning curve.