As is traditional, Serie B kicks off this weekend amidst a cloud of controversy and uncertainty this weekend. Avellino, Bari and Cesena have been forced to re-start from Serie D following a series of financial troubles and irregularities and the league management has chosen not to fill the void left by their departure.
The uncertainty on the playing side, however, has been diminished by the popular decision to bring forward the Italian transfer window to the start of the season, thus allowing clubs to effectively close their squads before proceedings get underway.
Untested imports and lower league journeymen
In light of this, there is no better time to look at the players that will hope to shine this season in Serie B season. As with every year, each of the 19 squads are filled with an array of lower league journeymen, former Serie A heavyweights, untested imports, youth academy graduates and young players brought in on loan from Serie A sides.
As the focus here will be on players in the younger age categories, many of the players discussed will be players loaned from leading Serie A clubs. This shouldn’t be surprising, as many of the stars that have lit up Italian football in the past decade have enjoyed similar loan spells in the second tier, including Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Simone Verde, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
There will, of course, be other young players who come through the youth systems or are otherwise introduced to Italian football through Serie B as has been the case with players such as Andrea Pirlo, Marco Verratti and Jorginho. Three examples of likely candidates to make this journey are Nicola “the next Andy Selva” Nanni (Crotone), Giulio Maggiore (Spezia) and Pepín (Pescara). However, in this article, I have tipped the following prospects to have their star shine brightest this season.
Sandro Tonali (Brescia)
As Ariel Ortega, Bojan Krkic and Gigi Donnarumma will testify to, it can be hard to live up to expectations when you’re constantly being compared to a living legend. From the youth teams onwards, each of your matches is analysed from the prism of how your mentor (real or otherwise) dealt with similar situations when he was your age and how their development through the ranks compared to your own. Often, these child prodigies will distance themselves from such comparisons and argue that it is hardly fair for them to be measured against the likes of Maradona, Messi and Buffon when their teammates are merely being compared against one another.
For Sandro Tonali, an 18-year-old midfielder from the town of Lodi, 25 kilometres from Milan, such comparisons do not seem a burden. Upon being asked who he models his game on shortly after being thrown into the first team of the Rondinelle during the course of last season, his answer was unequivocal: “Pirlo, with a bit of Gattuso thrown in”.
Indeed, the nonchalance of his answer was itself reminiscent of the former Milan and Juventus playmaker, but the comparisons don’t stop there. A player that Italian youth coaches around the country have known about for years, who glides – somewhat lazily – across midfield as he sweeps his dark shoulder-length hair from his eyes; star of the recent European Under-19 Championships for Italy and a permanent fixture in Brescia’s midfield. The greatest difference between Tonali and the World Cup winner’s careers so far perhaps lies in the fact that the Brescia number four is beginning his career as a deep-lying regista, undeniably conditioned by Pirlo’s own trailblazing conversion to the role.
Reportedly, the Rondinelle have already knocked back several big-money bids for the youngster over the summer in the hope that he can help guide them to Serie A and presumably attract a bigger bid thereafter. However, Tonali arguably faces a greater set of challenges this year than last. He must bear the responsibility of providing the creative spark from the middle of the park and handle the pressure that will naturally come as a result of his stellar performances with the Azzurini. This isn’t a make-or-break year for him by any means, but if he can build in the promise he showed last season, we’ll be much closer to seeing him set pitches alight in Serie A.
Kwang Song Han (Perugia, on loan from Cagliari)
Another youngster who exploded onto the Serie B scene last season with Perugia, Han Kwang-Son finds himself back at the club for a second loan spell after having been the subject a tug-of-war with Cagliari over the summer. The North Korean is famously looked after by an entourage that leaves him very little liberty to express himself off the pitch, but there are no similar concerns once the whistle blows. A quick, athletic and two-footed player, Han is also deceptively strong and uses his body to protect and win the ball in a way that belies his 19 years.
Having scored 7 goals in 17 league games in the first half of last season, he re-joined his parent club in January in the hope that he could have a similar impact on Serie A. After failing to score in his first three starts for the Sardinian club, an injury to his ankle against Torino ruled him out for a couple of weeks, and he was re-introduced sparingly as Cagliari spent the final weeks of the season battling relegation.
Given his proven goalscoring record at this level (in addition to his seven goals, he also managed three assists last season), Han is the surest prospect in this list. However, it remains to be seen how he will link up with Federico Melchiorri following the departures of Alberto Cerri (who will be playing his football at Cagliari) and Samuel Di Carmine (Verona), who he combined with so well last season.
Michele Cerofolini (Cosenza, on loan from Fiorentina)
It’s not easy being a 19-year-old goalkeeper in Italy, particularly in Florence. Indeed, anywhere else, Cerofolini would be regarded as one of the most promising young players in the country. Last season, he starred for Fiorentina under-20s as they reached the final of the Italian Championship. He has six Italian Under-19 caps under his belt and was part of the squad that reached the final of this year’s European Under-19 Championships. And yet, by general consensus, he is only the third best goalkeeper in his age group.
Currently between the sticks of the Italian national team is 19-year-old Gigi Donnarumma. In addition, the man starting ahead of Cerofolini at the European Championships in Finland, 18-year-old Alessandro Plizzari, won the golden gloves at the tournament. To make matters worse for the Tuscan goalie, his parent club Fiorentina went out and bought a new first-choice goalkeeper this summer, Frenchman Alban Lafont, who is two weeks younger than Cerofolini.
This season, Cerofolini finds himself with the opportunity to stake his claim for a more privileged position within both his national and club hierarchy on loan at Cosenza. Sure, his confidence won’t be boosted any by the fact that he only arrived in Calabria after a move for their first choice, the aforementioned Plizzari from Milan, was publicly rejected. However, with his new club expected to be at the wrong end of the table this season, we should at least see him kept busy more than most goalkeepers this season.
You can read more from the Football Blether, by visiting their site, here.