x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Roman Macheda looking to conquer

The young Italian striker talks about the only place to eat in Manchester and how he hopes to turn 'super-sub' cameos into regular starting berths.

Federico Macheda is very much in the minority within the Italian football fraternity in Manchester.

The United striker, who arrived in the north-west of England before most of the current prominent football folk, reckons he can hardly visit the city's San Carlo restaurant without seeing Roberto Mancini, the manager of Manchester City.

And any of Mancini's three Italian assistants might be with him. Mario Balotelli, the City forward, has been spotted there, too.

So do they all, the Manchester Italians, hang out together?

Macheda knows the city's deep divisions well enough by now not to volunteer an enthusiastic "Yes, of course".

"I only go and eat at Rosso's," he said, smiling. Rosso's is the Italian restaurant of choice for the United footballers. As it would be: the proprietor is the club's central defender Rio Ferdinand.

A little over three years after moving to Manchester, at barely 16 years old, Macheda - "Kiko" to his friends and colleagues - has begun to feel genuinely at home.

"It was quite tough for me at the start," he confessed, "but all my family are here with me. We feel settled, so things are not difficult any more."

His English, while occasionally hesitant, has also progressed from barely existent when he left Rome, to good enough for training-ground banter and, evidently, for some complex explanations.

He needed to provide one earlier this month, to Wayne Rooney.

Macheda had been quoted, during a press conference he gave while on duty with the Italy Under 21 squad, as describing Rooney as coatto; or, to be precise, as having said: "Rooney's a bit coatto, as we say in Rome."

By the time the statement had been translated across cyberspace, Macheda had been deemed to have labelled Rooney a "chav", even as "thick".

Poor Macheda, Roman born and bred, had to clarify to his senior club colleague that his phrase was better understood as "rough and ready", and that certainly no offence had been meant.

Rooney has, over the past tumultuous week in his career, been called far worse, and Macheda can look back on the brief buzz of headlines his comment had stirred with amusement.

He had contacted Ferdinand from Italy when the story broke, and was immediately reassured.

"It shows how things work at United," he said. "It is an unusual club because the older players do help out the younger ones a lot.

"Players like Rio, Rooney and Ryan Giggs are always giving me advice and help."

Those older players remember their debt to Macheda. Eighteen months ago, his goals set United on the path to their most recent Premier League title.

To recap, Macheda, then 17 years old, made his league debut, having served with distinction in the Under 18s and the reserves, in April 2009.

He came on a substitute with United trailing 2-1 to Aston Villa, the team apparently heading for a third successive defeat and consigned to looking upwards at Liverpool, who were then at the top of the table.

Cristiano Ronaldo struck an equaliser 10 minutes from time. Cue Macheda, two minutes into injury time, receiving the ball, back to goal, and swivelling around his marker to curl in a spectacular winner.

The super-sub reputation would be cemented in the next league fixture: 46 seconds after coming on, Macheda struck the winning goal away at Sunderland.

The two goals had represented the difference between falling three points behind Liverpool and standing a point clear in a Premier League title race they would wrap up the following month.

It had a been a glorious introduction. Inevitably, not every weekend would be so magical. Macheda had a frustrating 2009/10 season.

Injured through the winter months, he did register a goal against Chelsea, but it was in a losing cause against the club who would displace United as champions.

Had he felt downhearted? "No," he replied, a determined look on what is a typically Roman face, with its firm jaw and prominent nose.

"I am feeling good about my game right now. I have been playing a bit more this season and that obviously pleases me."

He has been cheered, too, by the encouragement he have received from Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at United.

"He has shown confidence, he's put me in the side and I have heard him talk to the press positively about me. It's a motivation. The better I do the more I hear of that. I feel lucky to have a manager like him at this stage in my career."

Selection with the Italy U21s had also boosted him, as had Ferguson relating to Macheda that Cesare Prandelli, head coach of the senior Azzurri side, had recently been in touch for a progress report.

"I know Italy are looking at younger players now," said Macheda, "but I need to establish a regular place here at United for that to happen."

With that aim, Macheda dismisses the idea, mooted by Lazio, that he might return there on loan in January. The Rome club, currently top of Serie A, were not happy when United recruited Macheda so young, but pragmatism has since guided them to see if mutual benefit might come from a brief return there.

Macheda says he is pleased to see Lazio soaring but is committed to battling for a role at United with Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Michael Owen.

Rooney's absence with injury had, and would, show the strength of his understudies, said Macheda.

"Wayne Rooney is the greatest striker we have, and with quality like he has, he will come back into form. You can never deny we are stronger when he's in the side, but when he's not the boss can give more opportunities to players like me and "Chicharito" to prove what we can do."

Chicharito Hernandez and Macheda were both super-subs in United's trickiest outing so far in the Champions League this season, Macheda coming off the bench to set up the late winner against Valencia in Spain for Hernandez to score.

And the Mexican and the Italian have, reports Macheda, become good friends since Hernandez's arrival in the summer. He is happy to advise the newcomer where to go - or not to go - if he wants an Italian dinner.

sports@thenational.ae