Paolo Bandini

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Paris St Germain's Thiago Silva reacts during their Champions League round of 16 second leg soccer match against Bayer Leverkusen at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris

Nobody seems to doubt Zlatan Ibrahimovic these days. Thirteen goals in 16 Champions League games for Paris Saint-Germain have undermined old claims that the striker could not perform on the biggest stage, and yet, curiously, it was the four that he scored in a friendly against England in 2012 that seemed to do most to rehabilitate his image. Perhaps because it was the British sporting press that had most stubbornly denied his gifts in the first place.

One way or another, the narrative leading into Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final against PSG this week has been consistent. Wednesday night’s first leg will be Ibrahimovic vs Mourinho, the striker attempting to take down his former coach. L’Equipe carried both men’s images on their front cover, billing the encounter as “The Special Match”. Mourinho described Ibrahimovic during his pre-game press conference as “one of the three best players in the world”.

And yet, he might not even be the most important one in PSG’s starting XI. As much as Ibra has been the star of the show this season, with 40 goals in all competitions, any absence from the side on his part would only allow Edinson Cavani to slip into his preferred position in the centre of attack. The Uruguayan scored 104 goals in three seasons for Napoli in that role, including one against Chelsea in the 2011-12 Champions League.

Instead, the most difficult man for PSG to replace might be their captain. As a defender on a team that spends most of its league games encamped in the opposition half, Thiago Silva inevitably receives less attention than his colleagues up front. But while Ibra’s exact ranking among the world’s top forwards remains a subject of debate, the Brazilian has achieved far greater consensus. Simply put, he is the best centre-back on the planet.

That is the opinion of both his former manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and team-mate, Alessandro Nesta – two men who know a little something about the art. The latter named Silva 17 places ahead of the next best centre-back (David Luiz) in his submission for the Guardian’s top 100 players list in December. Ancelotti included the Brazilian ahead of Nesta when invited to draw up an all-star XI from a list of every footballer he had ever coached.

Silva’s quality was reflected in the fee that PSG paid to acquire him in the summer of 2012 – €42m plus bonuses. It was a record for Ligue 1 at the time, and, perhaps more poignantly, twice as much as they paid for Ibrahimovic. That was as it should be; a poll conducted by the Italian broadcaster Mediaset earlier in the summer had found that 75% of Milan fans would sooner give up their striker than the defender.

It has not all been plain sailing for Silva since then. Injuries have disrupted each of his two seasons in France so far, and in fact he is expected to play in a protective mask against Chelsea on Wednesday. He wore it for the first time during his team’s 1-0 win away to Nice on Friday, having damaged his nose during a collision with Lorient’s Vincent Aboubakar the previous weekend.

On Tuesday the magazine France Football sparked a minor furore when they revealed that such masks cost as much as €2,000 to purchase from the Madrid-based clinic that produces them. And yet, in some ways, the item provided the perfect visual analogy for Silva himself. At first glance, both player and mask might seem unassuming, but closer inspection reveals the qualities that make them so valuable.

While Silva’s facewear derives its value from high-end composite materials, the defender draws his from a lifetime of experiences on and off the pitch. Unlike so many of his peers, he was not a childhood prodigy – in fact, he nearly gave up on football altogether as a boy after disappointing trials with each of Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco De Gama.

He could have quit and become a bus driver, or perhaps just collected passengers’ tickets on the one that his older brother was already operating. Silva certainly seemed to spend a lot of his time riding around on such vehicles. He even met his wife, Isabele, on a bus.

But something pushed him to keep pursuing his sporting dreams. He bounced through the youth systems of various smaller clubs before finally landing his first professional contract with RS Futebol, a minor club competing in regional competition. From there he was soon spotted by EC Juventude, and within a year sold on to Porto. Just like that, he was on his way to the big time.

Except, of course, that he was not. After a year in the Porto reserves, Silva was farmed out on loan to Dynamo Moscow, whereupon he contracted Tuberculosis. A late diagnosis almost cost him his life.

“I looked death in the face,” Silva would recall during one interview in 2011. “I had been sick for six months when the doctors worked out what I had. They told me that if we had left it another two weeks then there have been no possibility to find a cure. I was in hospital, I was eating a lot, but I didn’t even have the strength to walk.”

Instead, for a half a year he lay in bed, played Playstation and stared at Russian TV shows that he had no way to understand. That, and watched as much football as he could possibly find. He had always been an avid spectator of the game, right back to the years when, as a young child, he would sit on the sidelines at his local pitch, too shy to join in with the other boys.

But his was not a passive viewership. Silva was always learning, absorbing more about the game. Returning to Brazil after recovering from his illness in 2006, he had not played a competitive senior game in two years, and yet he soon won a starting place with Fluminense, quickly establishing himself as one of the best centre-backs in the country.

By December 2008 he was back in Europe, this time with Milan – although a complication regarding his status as a non-EU player meant that he would not be able to play a game until July of the following year. Once again he treated this set-back as an opportunity, devoting himself to studying the movements of Nesta and Paolo Maldini in training.

At home at night, he would carry on watching games from his native Brazil. “Every evening. Isabele is always complaining, saying: ‘You spend the whole day with the ball and now you are still watching games?’” he told Sportweek magazine. “But I tell her that if it was not for the ball I would still be in Brazil working as a bus driver.”

Instead he went from strength to strength, claiming a place alongside Nesta in Milan’s starting back line – which would become the pillar of the title-winning 2010-11 side. That same year he won the Armando Picchi award, given to the best defender in Serie A.

Through all those years of watching and learning, he had acquired the most important skills a defender can have – the ability to anticipate what will come next. Broad-shouldered and blessed with strong acceleration, even if not especially tall for his position, he had always owned the natural tools to be an effective defender, but it is the ease with which he reads the game that truly sets him apart.

He has demonstrated those skills many times over in Paris, despite the injuries that have kept him out of the line-up more often than he would like. Silva was PSG’s best-performer in their Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona last year, providing the catalyst for his team’s first-leg comeback when his header against the woodwork was prodded home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. One of his tackles on Lionel Messi was so well-timed as to become an instant YouTube hit.

In the end, though, PSG still fell, exiting the competition on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate draw. Now they aim to go one better. The world’s attention will be on Ibrahimovic at the Parc des Princes, as he seeks a way through against Silva’s compatriot David Luiz. But Mourinho will know as well as anyone that his team’s greatest challenge might just lie at the other end of the pitch.

Sunderland's Borini celebrates after scoring a goal against Manchester City during their English League Cup final soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London

Two years ago, not long after winning his first cap for Italy, Fabio Borini sat down for an interview with Sportweek magazine. Still a few days shy of his 21st birthday, the forward already seemed well on his way to great things. Since joining Roma from Parma the previous summer, he had established himself as a fixture of Luis Enrique’s starting XI and now had also captured the attention of national team manager Cesare Prandelli.

And yet there was nothing presumptuous about this softly-spoken kid, who chewed nervously on the laces that hung from the neck of his hoodie. Asked by his interviewer when he might feel as though he had truly arrived as a top-level footballer, Borini replied: “When I win something, playing the role of a protagonist [for my team]. And I will not want to stop after that.” Read the rest of this entry »

Prandelli attends the draw for the 2014 World Cup n Sao Joao da Mata

Cesare Prandelli is running out of time. The World Cup kicks off in exactly four months less a day, with teams obliged to register their 23-man squads even sooner, on 2 June. For some nations that might be straightforward, with only one or two fringe players’ places yet to be determined. But for the Italy manager, there are going to be some extremely difficult decisions to make.

The Azzurri, after all, fielded 40 different players over the course of their qualifying campaign, and that figure does not include unused squad members. Nobody featured in all 10 Group B games, Andrea Pirlo leading the way with nine appearances, while Gigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci had eight each. Those players aside, Prandelli showed himself willing to chop and change, responding to injuries at times, but also to his own assessments of which individuals were showing the best form.

This flexibility proved an asset, Italy qualifying with two games to spare for the first time in the nation’s history. But as the finals approach, fans are beginning to ask whether Prandelli knows his own strongest XI, and whether or not it might include yet more untested players.

In particular, there has been much speculation about the make-up of Italy’s attack. Prandelli has spoken since day one about his desire to build a team around Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, and yet that pair have only been able to play together a handful of times, injuries and suspensions denying their partnership the chance it needed to get off the ground.

Instead, the manager has been forced to constantly reshuffle his forward line, using 10 different attackers during qualifying. Balotelli was Italy’s leading scorer with five goals, and yet only played in five games – finding himself excluded at different times due to disciplinary issues and lack of playing time at Manchester City. Pablo Osvaldo, with seven appearances, was a more consistent feature of Prandelli’s side.

But the latter player’s chances of starring in Brazil have since been damaged by a disappointing six-month spell at Southampton. After scoring 16 goals in 29 games for Roma last year, he managed just three in 13 for the Saints before moving to Juventus on loan last month. He played well on his debut for the Bianconeri at the weekend, but may still find his playing time restricted on a team who already have Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente ahead of him.

Right now, then, the only certainty for Prandelli would appear to be Balotelli – although even his nine league goals this season are offset by eight accompanying yellow cards. Rossi, if fit, will also find his way to Brazil, but after suffering yet another knee injury – expected to keep him out until April – he cannot afford any set-backs in his rehabilitation schedule.

Otherwise, squad places for attackers are very much up for grabs. Prandelli will have the option of calling on other forwards that he used throughout the qualifying campaign, such as Alberto Gilardino, Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Giampaolo Pazzini. But increasingly he is also coming under pressure from the public to consider players whom he has not used before – the likes of Luca Toni, Domenico Berardi or Ciro Immobile.

The first of those, in particular, has been gaining vocal support. The newspaper Corriere della Sera published a feature on its website this Tuesday, pointing out that it had been 1,696 days since Toni last played for Italy but arguing that “it is time to run to his services once more”.

The World Cup winner is, at 36 years old, enjoying a career renaissance, scoring 11 goals to drive newly-promoted Hellas Verona into the race for a European berth. He also has the highest average match rating (7.5) with Corriere out of any potential Italy striker. “When things are going like this for a player,” added the paper, “he can put his ID card back in the drawer.”

Berardi and Immobile are at the other end of the scale – 19 and 23 years old respectively, and each without a senior cap to their name. The former won international headlines with his four-goal performance against Milan last month, and his 12 league strikes overall represent more than half of Sassuolo’s total output this season.

But Prandelli speaks about him only in measured tones. “Berardi? After a long ban, he needs to go through the Under-21s first, just like everyone else,” said the Italy manager – referencing the one-year suspension from the national team set-up that the striker was given after failing to answer a call-up to the Under-19 team last year. “If he does well there, as well as in the league, with continuity, then he will get a look as well. We shall see.”

Immobile might be another matter. Prandelli confirmed to reporters this week that he has been keeping an eye on the Torino striker, and that he was “following him closely for Brazil, too”. “Immobile has not surprised me,” continued the manager. “He is a modern, complete attacker. He has a great generousness to him, too. And he is continuing to get better as a goalscorer.”

Recently it has seemed as though Immobile is becoming more effective by the week. He has struck seven times in his last seven games, despite not taking penalties for his team. Indeed, remove spot-kicks from the equation, and the Torino player’s 12 goals overall would be enough to make him the top scorer in Serie A.

Perhaps we, like Prandelli, ought not to be shocked. Immobile has always been a natural goalscorer, dating back to his time growing up in Naples as part of the Sorrento youth team. In 2007-08, his final year with that club’s Under-17 side, he found the net 30 times – enough to earn himself a move to Juventus. He continued to dominate in the Old Lady’s youth set-up, leading her to back-to-back Viareggio tournament triumphs, and scoring a record-equalling 14 times along the way.

Immobile was briefly anointed as the heir to Juve’s attack, the symbolism not lost on fans as he was introduced as a substitute for Alessandro Del Piero on each of his league and Champions League debuts. But he was not yet ready for such a stage. He slogged through unsatisfying loan moves to Siena and Grosseto before exploding at Pescara in 2011-12. Inspired by Zdenek Zeman’s attack-minded schemes, he scored 28 times as the Delfini raced to a Serie B title.

Instead of accompanying Pescara into the top-flight, he returned to Juventus and was swiftly sold on co-ownership to Genoa. There he would struggle, scoring only five times for his new club. There were mitigating circumstances here – most notably in the fact that he had often been made to play out wide in order to accommodate the more experienced Gilardino – but it was to Immobile’s credit that he never really sought to make excuses.

After returning to Juventus again last summer, and this time being sold on co-ownership to Torino, Immobile was asked what he thought had gone wrong in Genoa. “Players often look for alibis – it’s easy to give the blame to others,” he told the newspaper La Repubblica. “I messed up, even if the atmosphere was not ideal for me.”

He has found a happier home in Turin, where Giampiero Ventura has not only stationed Immobile in his preferred position as the leading man in a 3-5-1-1, but also afforded him time to settle. The striker did not score his first goal until October. Since then, he has not stopped.

So effective has his partnership with Alessio Cerci been, that fans have begun to compare the pair to Francesco Graziani and Paolo Pulici – the ‘goal twins’ who led Torino to its most recent Scudetto in 1976. Immobile, a player well-versed in his footballing history, is making every effort to justify that comparison. “I read that Pulici would have 1,500 shots on goal every week,” he said last month. “In my opinion, training that hard is essential.”

Immobile also had his own footballing idols before joining Torino, though, citing the former Cesena and Brescia forward Dario Hubner as a player he tried to style himself after, and Mario Gomez as a more current role model. Just like both of those players he is tall and powerful, but refuses to limit himself to sniffing out chances inside the box. Prandelli’s praise for Immobile’s “modern” approach was a reference, in part, to his willingness to drop back, fight for possession and help to launch counter-attacks.

It is still far too early to anoint Immobile as the coming star of the national team, having, as he does, just half a season of high-quality top-flight performances under his belt. Plenty of great lower-league goalscorers have been and gone down the years without ever making much impact at the highest level.

But Immobile has done enough to deserve the consideration that he is receiving. There are very few sure things up front for Prandelli, and yet plenty of interesting options. Immobile might just be the most intriguing.

New Inter Milan president Thohir, of Indonesia, greets supporters before the Italian Serie A soccer match against Sampdoria at San Siro stadium in Milan

Inter Milan president and majority owner Erick Thohir promised to roll up his sleeves. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli just wished he would pick up the phone. As the mooted exchange deal that would have sent Mirko Vucinic to Inter in return for Fredy Guarin slowly unravelled over the first two days of this week, Agnelli sought on multiple occasions to get his opposite number on the line so that they might have a frank conversation about what exactly was going on. But if the Bianconeri’s version of this story is to be believed, Thohir replied only in 160-character bursts.

“At 10.48am on Tuesday, Agnelli received from Thohir, whom he had tried to contact several times, a text message that gave definitive approval for the whole transfer,” said Juventus’s general manager Beppe Marotta in his statement to the press on Wednesday. “Then everything got cancelled and we don’t understand why.”

That final comment was rather disingenuous. Marotta knew very well why this deal collapsed, as did the rest of the country. On Monday morning, news of the potential transfer had leaked out into the public domain, sparking a furious reaction among Inter’s supporters.

What began as an online protest, with fans raging on message boards and social media, escalated quickly into something more serious as Ultras from San Siro’s Curva Nord issued a statement that condemned their club and its president, warning that: “The sale … of one of the most important player’s in Inter’s squad to another Italian club is the drop that will make the vase overflow.” By Tuesday afternoon, a group was preparing to march on the team’s offices in corso Vittoro Emmanuele.

Representatives of the two clubs had been engaged in face-to-face negotiations for the best part of two days by that point, switching between various hotels and offices in Milan. Although they had initially pushed for a straight swap, Juventus were reportedly willing to throw in a €1m cash sweetener, with a further €500,000 in potential bonuses. In the meantime, Vucinic had already cleared out his locker at their Vinovo training base and travelled north to undergo his medical in Milan on Monday night.

But the strength of the fans’ reaction was enough to give Thohir pause. As the head of a substantial media empire in Indonesia, he understands well the importance of PR. Pressing ahead with a move that would anger such a large part of his consumer base was difficult to justify. Somewhere around 6pm on Tuesday evening, he finally pulled the plug, cancelling the transfer shortly before those Ultras arrived outside Inter’s headquarters bearing banners with angry slogans.

The Curva Nord celebrated its “victory”, issuing a further statement thanking all those who had added their voices to its campaign, but for their club itself, this was another unedifying scene. Inter, after all, had been the ones who initiated the deal in the first place, enquiring about Vucinic’s availability as they sought to reinforce an attack that has scored just once in its last four games.

Although they had not initially planned to offer Guarin in exchange, the midfielder had been agitating for a move and appealed to Juve’s manager Antonio Conte. His €2.3m annual salary was not so far apart from what Inter would expect to pay Vucinic, meaning that they could make the switch without doing further damage to their already precarious finances.

That is not to say that the fans’ concerns were unjustified. At 27 years old, Guarin is three years younger than Vucinic and has a contract running through to 2016, whereas the Juventus player is scheduled to become a free agent in 18 months’ time. And while the Colombian has flattered to deceive on occasion, he has still been one of Inter’s better performers this season. Vucinic has made just four league starts for Juve, losing his place in the side following the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente.

Inter, furthermore, have been burned by similar trades with their rivals before now. The Nerazzurri infamously sent Fabio Cannavaro to Juventus in 2004 in exchange for back-up goalkeeper Fabian Carini. As James Horncastle detailed in a piece for ESPN this week, it was not the first time that they had made a bad deal with the Old Lady.

But if the outcome looks like the right one for Inter, then the route they took to get there has damaged both the club and Thohir’s credibility as an owner. After all, it should not have required a fan revolt to alert Thohir to these concerns. If the club’s negotiators felt that they were getting a bad deal, then they should have dug their heels in much sooner. Conversely, if this was a transfer strategy they believed in, why relent so easily?

In truth, this story is all too familiar. Incoherent hiring strategies are a long-established fact of life for Inter, and they extend not only to the acquisition of new players but also the appointment of managers. In 2011, the club approached Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa and Andre Villas-Boas about the possibility of replacing Leonardo before finally settling for Gian Piero Gasperini. Good luck discerning any common thread linking that particular foursome.

Although fully aware of Gasperini’s preference for a three-man attack, the club then failed to arrange its transfer campaign accordingly, retaining Wesley Sneijder—for whom there was no natural role in the new manager’s schemes—but selling Samuel Eto’o. Inter subsequently signed Diego Forlan, without noticing that he would be cup tied for that season’s European competition. They ignored Gasperini’s requests for an additional midfielder and, as if to rub salt into the wound, did not sign the one player he had specifically requested—Rodrigo Palacio—until a year later, after the manager had been fired.

Countless more examples could be drawn from Massimo Moratti’s time as owner, during which incredible sums of money were wasted on the likes of Ricardo Quaresma and Francesco Coco while players as good as Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci were allowed to slip away for much less than they were worth.

Things were supposed to go differently under Thohir, with his stated commitments to good business practice and to helping Inter get back to a self-sustaining financial model. In November he insisted that the club’s January transfer plans would be focused around signing more young players to complement those who would be promoted from the youth team. “We need to be confident,” he said. “I think a number of younger Italian players are worth giving a shot.”

Perhaps Inter’s disappointing performances have necessitated a shift in that mindset. A team that started the season brightly enough has now won just twice since November 9th. Though they remain in fifth place, the prospects of hanging on to a Europa League spot look slim unless something changes soon.

But the greatest concern for many Inter fans is simply that Thohir continues to entrust the day-to-day running of Inter’s transfer policies to the same people who have been guilty of so many mistakes in the past. The main driving force behind the Vucinic-Guarin trade was Marco Branca, the technical director who has held that job since 2003 (he had previously spent a further year with the club as a scout).

Working alongside him were sporting director Piero Ausilio and general manager Marco Fassone, whose overlapping roles do not always allow for a clear line of command. Until recently, it was always Moratti who took ultimate responsibility, applying his own personal judgement to every deal that got done.

Thohir, though, does not seem inclined to take such a hands-on role. Although he considers himself a fan, he is also quick to acknowledge that he lacks technical expertise. When it comes to transfer business, he would prefer to stand aside and let the football people do their job, working within the financial parameters that are set for them.

But while a hands-off approach makes good business sense, it only works if you have the right people in place. Although Branca helped to oversee a period of great success for Inter in the wake of Calciopoli, his successes are coloured by both the fact that Inter’s domestic rivals were so weak at the time.

Those successes were achieved, furthermore, without any pretence of trying to balance the books. In 2010, the year that Inter won the treble, they posted losses of €69m. In each of the two previous years, that figure had stood closer to €150m. Given that Thohir has no intention of supporting such losses going forwards, he must also ask himself whether Branca is up to the task of rejuvenating this squad on a far more modest budget.

When Thohir completed his takeover of Inter last October, he made a point of maintaining continuity with the old regime, even pleading with Moratti to stay on as a full-time president. The latter eventually settled for an honorary role (and Thohir did call him for advice this week before making his final decision on the Vucinic-Guarin swap), but with his son serving as vice-president and many directors remaining in place, much has stayed the same.

At this stage, it is tempting to wonder whether it might be too much. Inter’s performances have been in decline ever since Jose Mourinho stepped aside in the summer of 2010. To reverse that trend will require strong leadership. It might also require a break from the past that Thohir seems reluctant to make.

AC Milan v Sao Paulo - Audi Cup Third/Fourth Place Play-Off 2013 - Pre Season Friendly Tournament

Bryan Cristante’s memory does not always serve him well. Asked during an interview last March to recall how he first started playing football, the 18-year-old Milan midfielder responded with a theatrical groan. “Seriously?” he replied. “I don’t even remember what I did on Saturday.”

One assumes that this Monday’s events will stay with him a little longer. Four-and-a-half years after joining Milan as an academy prospect, this was the day when Cristante finally made his first start for the senior team. Deployed on the right of a three-man midfield against Atalanta, he marked the occasion with a fine goal – a searing 20-yard drive that crashed off the inside of Andrea Consigli’s right-hand upright and into the back of the net.

That strike sealed a 3-0 win for the Rossoneri, following an earlier brace from Kaká. It also caused Adriano Galliani to lose the run of himself. “Bryan is not moving from Milan, I have already said as much to his agent,” said the Milan vice-president. “He will play in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid, too.”

Supporters will be delighted to hear the first part of that statement (although Galliani has misled us on such matters before), even if the club’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, might be a little perplexed to hear team selections being made on his behalf for a fixture that is still more than a month away. One swallow does not make a summer, and it is far too soon to assume that Cristante could be ready for such a crucial game.

With that being said, the signs on Monday were encouraging. Besides scoring his goal, Cristante also hit the crossbar early on, and played with an impressive assuredness throughout. A physically powerful player, he was quick to impose himself on the game, winning tackles and demanding the ball from his team-mates. There was no sense here of a player overawed.

And why should he be? Cristante might not remember the details of his footballing journey to this point, but he will be aware that he has dominated in every age category so far. In 2008, at 13 years old, he was called up to train with Italy’s Under-15 team, becoming, according to contemporary reports, the first Italian ever to receive a call-up while not yet on the books of a professional team. He was still playing for Liventina Gorghense, an amateur club (albeit one affiliated with Milan), at the time.

(As an aside, Cristante could also have represented Canada, had he so chosen to do so. He holds a passport through his father, who was born in Toronto.)

The Rossoneri brought Cristante into their academy in 2009, and in his first season he helped to drive their Under-15 side to a national title. A year later, he did the same thing with the Under-17s. By late 2011, he had caught the eye of Allegri, who called him up to train with the senior team. After just two sessions, the manager named Cristante in his squad to face Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. Introduced as an 81st minute substitute, the midfielder became the youngest player ever to represent Milan in continental competition, at just 16 years and 278 days old.

Despite not making another senior appearance until this season, Cristante’s upward trajectory continued. Last February he was named as the best player at the annual Viareggio youth tournament, where Milan finished as runners-up behind Anderlecht.

Since last summer Cristante has been training full-time with the first team. As Milan struggled through the early part of the season, fans began to wonder how long it could be before this much-discussed talent got another shot. He had made just one appearance before last weekend, a five-minute cameo in a goalless draw against Chievo.

Allegri dwelled on that question as well. He considered starting Cristante against Roma in December, and then again for the Milan derby six days later, but worried about asking too much of the teenager. He went with Andrea Poli and Sulley Muntari instead, playing on either side of Nigel De Jong. Milan drew with the Giallorossi before losing to their city rivals.

Then came the winter break, and more time to ponder. Muntari would be suspended for the Atalanta game after being sent off in the dying moments against inter, and Riccardo Montolivo was still not yet ready to return from a muscle injury, but the manager still had other options, with Poli, De Jong and Antonio Nocerino all available. In the end he dropped the first of those in order to make room for Cristante.

His subsequent performance has left Allegri with fresh dilemmas, albeit ones that the manager should welcome. Cristante offers Milan a different set of attributes to the likes of Poli or Nocerino. His 6ft 1ins height, combined with his experience of playing at centre-back on occasion for the youth team, is an asset to a side that still gives up too many goals from set-pieces. He can contribute at the other end, too. Monday’s strike was no fluke, as anyone who saw his similarly brilliant effort against Barcelona’s youth team in November can attest. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guQNf-jSI1U)

More than anything, though, what Cristante can offer Milan right now is the naivety of youth. On paper, the Rossoneri ought not to be any weaker a team this year than they were last season, when they finished third, but somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced their self-belief. Ground down by disappointing results, too many players have grown afraid to take the initiative, stumbling nervously through games that they should be dominating.

Cristante, by contrast, has a confidence that borders on excessive, a willingness to attempt the ambitious pass or shot any time he is in possession—even if sometimes he shouldn’t. His critics might call it arrogance, but that seems unfair on a player who also has the work ethic to match. Coaches depict him a consummate professional, one who shows up to work early every day and stays out after training to get a little extra work in.

None of this, of course, guarantees a great career ahead. Cristante’s development has caught the eye of several other leading European clubs, with both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen said to have made enquiries after seeing him at Viareggio, but until he has played a significant number of senior games, it is impossible to say whether he will live up to his potential. The recent examples of Rodney Strasser and Alexander Merkel, whose careers have not yet lived up to the high expectations placed upon them when they first emerged at Milan, provide a note of caution.

But after such a miserable start, Milan needed this injection of hope, a reason to believe that things can indeed get better. Galliani has been talking for some time about the importance of developing more young players in order for the club’s business model to become self-sustaining, and his new co-vice-president Barbara Berlusconi made the same point forcefully with some thinly-veiled criticisms at his work in recent months.

What could be better than the emergence of a player who Milan paid just €25,000 to acquire? The Rossoneri had been looking to reinforce their midfield this January, and were reportedly willing to offer co-ownership of Cristante in a bid to land Radja Naingglolan from Cagliari. That the Belgian signed for Roma instead could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, Cristante’s potential transfer will be higher today than it was at the start of this week.

Milan’s supporters, though, would prefer him to stay and develop with the club he supported as a boy. Cristante, who signed a five-year contract last March, would like that, too, although he is impatient to play in more games. “If Galliani said that he will stay at Milan, then that is what will happen,” said the player’s agent, Giuseppe Riso, this week. “We only hope that Bryan manages to find more space in the team from here to the end of the season, because only by playing can a kid get better and gain experience.”

As with any club entrusting a starting place to a young player, Milan would be taking a gamble. But right now they sit 11th in the table, two points closer to the relegation zone than they are to a Europa League spot. It does not feel as though they have an awful lot to lose.

Injured FC Sion player Gattuso sits in the tribune before the start of the second half of their Swiss Super League soccer match against Grasshopper in Sion

For the second time in five days, Gennaro Gattuso’s image graced the front cover of Gazzetta dello Sport. On Saturday, he was seen serving up a big plate of spaghetti to Andrea Poli. Gattuso had invited the Milan midfielder to a restaurant that he owns in Gallarate, to the north-west of the city, after learning through media interviews that they shared a mutual admiration.

On Wednesday, though, the story was rather different. “Ringhio defends himself,” ran the headline above a stock photo of Gattuso in his playing days. One day previously, his home had been searched as part of the ‘Last Bet’ match-fixing investigations, which have been ongoing since 2011.

He was not the only person under scrutiny. In total, eleven current and former footballers’ homes were raided on Tuesday, while four other people were arrested on match-fixing charges. Gattuso, unlike that latter group, has not yet formally been accused of any specific offence, but as the most famous face linked to this latest stage in the investigation, his story inevitably dominated the headlines.

Gattuso’s powerful reaction might also have helped to intensify the spotlight. “If they proved this stuff then I would be inclined to go out into the piazza and kill myself,” he told TV reporters. “This is not who I am.”

At first he denied having even placed a bet in his life, although he would later backtrack on that statement, telling Gazzetta that he made a few wagers in 2002-03, before players were banned from doing so. But as he would rightly stress, having an occasional flutter was quite a different thing than rigging a game.

“In my life, I have never, and I mean never sat down with people to fix matches,” he told Gazzetta. “I have never thought in even the furthest part of my brain about throwing a game because, first of all, I don’t even know how you do it. I don’t ever play with my friends, because I don’t even know how to lose a meaningless little game. Anyone who knows me knows how I think.”

It was a characteristically passionate response, although even the player’s tone quickly became the source of conjecture, with both his defenders and his detractors extrapolating far more than they reasonably should. “Everyone close to me is telling me to stay calm,” continued Gattuso. “You tell me how a person can stay calm when they know 100% that they never did anything of the sort.”

He had been drawn into this investigation after prosecutors in Cremona obtained phone records for two of the men arrested yesterday—Francesco Bazzani and Salvatore Spadaro, who are alleged to have acted as the middle-men between bettors and footballers in a series of matches dating back over several years. Ever since the investigation began in 2011, investigators have been searching for that missing piece of the puzzle, the ‘Mister X’ (or perhaps ‘Misters X and Y’) who were in position to negotiate with all parties and orchestrate a result.

Key to the case against Bazzani and Spadaro is evidence that they contacted players and other football club employees by phone before and after matches that are under investigation. Gattuso’s name came up when it emerged that he had received 13 text messages from Bazzani over the course of a year and a half. But as the player himself has pointed out, he did not respond to any of them.

The pair had certainly met, with Gattuso characterising Bazzani, a professional bookie, as someone who knew “half of Serie A”. But according to the player, the only things they discussed were tickets and shirts for giveaways.

Early indications are that the people who matter might be inclined to believe him. Corriere dello Sport’s Andrea Ramazzotti wrote on Thursday that: “investigators do not consider Gattuso’s role in the betting scandal to be a central one”. It was suggested that he might not be required to stand trial.

He would not be the first the first player to be exonerated in this investigation after having his name dragged through the mud. Domenico Criscito was infamously dropped from Italy’s Euro 2012 squad after a high-profile dawn raid on his bedroom at Italy’s Coverciano training facility last June. The case against him was subsequently dismissed without any charges being brought.

Herein the danger in rushing to judgement. Gattuso has not yet even been charged with an offence, and yet might reasonably argue that his reputation has already been massively tarnished by events over the last two days.

Giancarlo Abete, president of the Italian Football Federation, spoke out in support on Wednesday, saying that: “I will only take this into consideration if there were to be a judicial ruling, which I hope will not happen, against him. Knowing Gattuso, and knowing his behaviour and his style, it seems impossible to me that he would be involved.”

Abete went further, stating the need for “prudence” in waiting for the Last Bet investigation to run its course. “In terms of clear-cut situations,” he added, “there is not a lot to see at the moment”.

Not everyone would agree with that final assertion. In fact, many people found it surprising that Abete would make such a comment, given that 53 football clubs, as well as 144 players, managers and other team employees, have already been sentenced by the sport’s disciplinary body for offences unearthed by the Last Bet investigation. Penalties have ranged from fines to suspensions and points deductions.

And while judgements must be held until all trials are completed, Tuesday’s arrests were accompanied with some damning allegations by the chief prosecutor, Roberto Di Martino. Of the 30 matches now under investigation, four took place in 2013 (you can see a full list here). The implication is that, after a brief hiatus following the initial round of arrests in 2011, the people attempting to fix matches went right back to work.

If true, that would be a damning indictment of the game’s ability to police itself, allowing such a thing to occur so soon after the warning flags had been raised. It seems a far more pressing concern for Italian football than the question of whether one high-profile individual was or was not involved.

Juventus' Vidal heads to score against FC Copenhagen's goalkeeper Johan Wiland during their Champions League soccer match at Juventus stadium in Turin

Through two Scudetto-winning seasons, it was said to be Juventus’s only flaw. For all the evident quality in Antonio Conte’s team, the Bianconeri still lacked a certain something up front – a truly great centre-forward who could unpick a defence on his own.

The club’s general manager, Beppe Marotta, had recognised this need, but did himself no favours by throwing out the phrase “top player” to describe the striker that he sought. The longer he failed to deliver such a talent, the louder the complaints from the club’s supporters became. There was much derision in August 2012 when the club, having failed to land a more exciting name, bought back Sebastian Giovinco from his co-ownership at Parma instead.

Everything changed this summer, with the arrival of Carlos Tevez. The player might have earned himself a reputation as a ne’er-do-well during his time at Manchester City, but not even his most strident critics could question the player’s talent. He had scored 58 goals in 107 Premier League games for City and provided a good many assists, too.

Better yet, Juventus got him on the cheap – paying just €9m up front, plus potential bonuses that have variously been quoted at somewhere between €3m-6m. By also capturing Fernando Llorente on a free transfer, Marotta had managed to completely transform Juve’s attack for less money than he paid for 50% of Giovinco’s rights a year earlier.

Nevertheless, some still asked why he had not gone further. Marotta’s transfer budget had been set at approximately €30m by the club’s board in June. Why not go after a younger player than Tevez – one who could lead the line for years to come? Many fans had been hoping that the club would pursue Gonzalo Higuaín, who instead wound up signing for their title rivals Napoli.

But Conte had never been that keen on the Real Madrid player, believing him to be a little too one-dimensional. He was more enthusiastic about Stevan Jovetic, whose ability to play out wide would have allowed Juventus the option of switching into a 4-3-3 formation, but Fiorentina had no intention of selling the player to such bitter rivals.

Juventus could not really have afforded him in any case. Manchester City would eventually pay €26m for Jovetic, with potential bonuses to follow, more than Marotta had left over after the Tevez deal. In truth, Juve already had another €13m committed to resolving co-ownership deals for Kwadwo Asamoah and Federico Peluso. The team also wanted to improve its cover at centre-back, and would need another lump sum to procure Angelo Ogbonna from Torino.

Instead of making any more immediate additions up front, then, Marotta set his sights on the long-term. Together with Juventus’s sporting director, Fabio Paratici, he began to orchestrate a series of transfers designed to get the next ‘top player’ on his club’s books – without even knowing for certain who that person was just yet.

The process had begun a year earlier, when Juventus bought a 50% share in the 20-year-old Atalanta striker Manolo Gabbiadini. Together with Ciro Immobile, whose rights they already co-owned with Genoa, that gave the Bianconeri an investment in two of the most promising young forwards on the peninsula. Gabbiadini had scored 10 goals in 15 appearances for Italy’s Under-21s; Immobile, at that time still just breaking through into the same national team, had set a new record at Italy’s Viareggio youth tournament two years earlier by finding the net 10 times in seven games.

But football’s history is littered with stories of players who excelled in the academy before failing to replicate such success at the senior level. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, there’s genius everywhere, but until they turn in 15 goals in a top-flight season, it’s like popcorn in the pan. Some pop, some don’t.

For that reason, Marotta was eager to continue spreading his bets. And so, this July, he acquired Simone Zaza from Sampdoria for €3.5m, taking advantage of the fact that the player only had one year left on his contract to land him on the cheap. The 22-year-old had been Serie B’s top scorer last season, finding the net 18 times in 35 games while on loan at Ascoli.

Zaza was still too raw to get a game for Juve, but that was never on Marotta’s short-term agenda. Instead he wanted to use the player as leverage to help him acquire a fourth young striker: Domenico Berardi. The 19-year-old had scored 11 goals for Sassuolo the previous season as they earned promotion to Serie A for the first time in club history.

First Juventus sold Zaza on co-ownership to Sassuolo for €2.5m, making back more than half of what they had paid to buy the player outright, but more importantly establishing a good relationship with the Neroverdi, who had desperately needed another forward. Marotta was then able to persuade them to swap 50% Berardi’s rights for an equivalent share in the Juventus midfielder Luca Marrone. Both would play for Sassuolo this season, along with Zaza.

Nor did the trading end there. In the same transfer window, Juventus acquired the remaining 50% share in Immobile from Genoa, and then gave it to Torino as part of their deal to sign Ogbonna. Similarly, they bought out Atalanta’s half of Gabbiadini before selling it to Sampdoria, a move which helped grease the wheels of their deal to sign Zaza in the first place.

It was enough to make even the most seasoned observer’s head spin. Marotta had exploited the benefits of Italy’s co-ownership mechanism to its fullest. Gazzetta dello Sport’s Carlo Laudisa described Juve’s transfer campaign as being, “as complicated as it was long-sighted”.

The champions had walked away from the summer transfer window holding a share of four of the most promising young strikers in Italy. Each of Berardi, Zaza, Immobile and Gabbiadini would now get regular first-team football with a top-flight side, and Juventus could sit back and wait to see which of them would emerge.

So far, Berardi has been the most eye-catching, finding the net seven times in just 10 Serie A appearances for Sassuolo. His goals make up more than 40% of Sassuolo’s entire scoring output this season. Although four of those goals have come from penalties, it is also true that he earned three of them himself.

But the others are not doing too shabbily, either. Immobile has five goals for Torino, and Zaza has the same number for Sassuolo. Gabbiadini only has three for Sampdoria, but that is in part reflective of the club’s all-round struggles so far this season. Just like Immobile and Zaza, he is the second-highest scorer on his team.

Each player, furthermore, brings something slightly different to the table. Berardi has often played out wide in his brief career to date and could be deployed on either side of a front three; Gabbiadini is a tall and powerful player who knows how to hold the ball up; Immobile is a fine dribbler who can shoot with both feet; Zaza is an instinctive poacher with a knack for showing up in the right places at the right time.

Will all of them go on to great and illustrious careers? Almost certainly not. But by taking a share in all of them, Juventus have positioned themselves in such a way as to be able to take their pick.

Co-ownership deals in Italy must be resolved at the end of each season, either with both teams agreeing to continue for another year, or with one team buying the other out – whether that be for an agreed fee or through the process of a silent auction. In theory, it is possible that Sassuolo, Torino or Sampdoria could outbid Juve for one of these players. In practice, none are likely to do so, for the simple reason that they do not share the same financial clout.

And so Marotta can wait for as long as he needs to see these strikers mature, perhaps even swapping them on to other clubs if that suits. One way or another, he has good reason to believe that Juventus’s next ‘top player’ is already on their books – even if right now they are scoring their goals for somebody else.