It was only four years ago that Domenico Berardi was first earmarked as a star of the future. The 16-year-old had been visiting his older brother at the University of Modena, just a few miles from the industrial town of Sassuolo, when he impressed in a kickabout. He was quickly referred to the local team's scout Luciano Carlino, who organised a trial for him the following day.
"A phenomenon," said Carlino. After just 20 minutes of the trial, Sassuolo's sporting director snapped him up.
Four years on, the shy son of a motorway maintenance worker from Calabria is the second-top goalscorer in Serie A, despite being only 19, and despite playing for a team scrapping against relegation. He has quickly established himself as the best young prospect in Italy, snapped up on co-ownership in the summer by Serie A giants Juventus, and still reportedly tracked by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.
Berardi's rise to Serie A stardom from that fateful day in Modena has been inexorable. His transformation from talented youngster to continental wonderkid was completed when he single-handedly ended Massimiliano Allegri's reign at AC Milan (and earned the eternal respect of rossoneri fans everywhere) by netting four times in Sassuolo's shock 4-3 win earlier this month.
There has been only one ‘poker' in Serie A history scored by a younger player than Berardi. That happened to be scored by a certain Silvio Piola for Pro Vercelli back in 1931 -- a player widely regarded as one of the greatest Italian footballers of all time. World Cup winner and Serie A all-time top scorer, Piola posthumously ended up with a couple of stadiums named after him to boot.
Berardi's certainly left himself with quite some boots to fill.
On a serious note, clearly it's way too early to be comparing Berardi to one of the greatest Italian footballers of all time. That's not just Piola, but also Juventus great Alessandro Del Piero, with whom Berardi has received other favourable comparisons. However, the Del Piero similarity at least has some stylistic reinforcement -- and not just in their penchant for direct free-kicks.
Like Ale, Berardi is a creative forward, capable of carving out chances for others as often as himself. He's tall but mobile, with his best position being off the right flank. From there he's able to cut inside onto his stronger left boot, curling a shot towards goal or slipping a pass through for a teammate. When possession is out on the left, you'll often find him making an intelligent burst through the centre in a bid to dazzle opposition defenders.
Despite some controversy which saw Berardi banned from international competition for nine months after declining a call-up to the Italy U19 squad last May, former azzurri coach Arrigo Sacchi has spoken of the teenager in glowing terms. "Berardi is a player of great talent, a modern footballer who plays for the team all over the field. The liveliness, intuition, temperament, strength combine with a good technique," he wrote in a column in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
For Juventus to recall Berardi from his loan at Sassuolo next season, therefore, may seem a no brainer. In reality, it's anything but.
In recent interview in the Daily Mail, Everton boss Roberto Martínez noted that "from the start to 18," the English youth system was the best in the world. "But the development from 19 to 22 is definitely not good enough," he added. Perhaps English teams make the mistake of thinking development stops at 18. Hopefully in Italy they're a little wiser.
At 19, Berardi is in the middle of the second crucial phase. He's still got improvements to make yet.
So far he's shown glimpses of great potential, but the Juventus need to handle him very carefully to make sure he continues on his current trajectory. They've have had too many bright sparks fall by the wayside to rush into a rash decision to recall him, where he may not find first team football easy to come by.
Italian national coach Cesare Prandelli will have to take similar concerns into consideration when he selects his squad for the World Cup this summer. It would be terrific to see Berardi in Brazil, but Prandelli will no doubt be aware of the concerns Martínez alluded to in his interview. "We give [young players] too much." he said. Too much, too young is the big worry with Berardi.
But then again, further comments from Sacchi seem to suggest he's not going to lose his head under the international glare. "He is an introverted youngster, but with his head on his shoulders, I don't think popularity will make him lose enthusiasm and desire to improve," he notes. "It will be difficult to distract his strong character and great personality." High praise indeed from one of the finest coaches Italy has ever seen.
For now though, all Berardi can do is keep it up, regardless of the decisions which will be made over the coming months by Conte, Prandelli and company. Providing the kid from Calabria maintains his desire to improve, the sky's his limit.