Giuseppe Rossi's Fiorentina debut in the final game of last season may have seemed like a fairly uneventful and insignificant circumstance; a discreet 26 minute cameo away at the deserted Stadio Adriatico, as the viola romped to a season-ending 5-1 win over relegated Pescara. The striker didn't score, and didn't even register a single shot after coming off the bench. However, they were arguably the most significant 26 minutes of Rossi's career to date.
That's because they saw the New Jersey native make his first tentative, childlike steps into a competitive football match in over 19 months. Having suffered back-to-back career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament injuries while at Villarreal, those 26 minutes of football showed that Rossi had recovered, and returned.
His short appearance at the Adriatico didn't stop understandable doubt dragging into the summer over whether Rossi would ever make it back to the glittering form that saw him net 18 goals in 36 games for Villarreal in the 2010-11 La Liga campaign, or rediscover the spark which saw Manchester United him from Parma's youth academy as a 17-year-old back in 2004.
But, Fiorentina showed faith in the Italian international, signing him on a four-and-a-half year contract for €10 million back in the midst of his rehabilitation in January. With time on his side, they believed he would make it back to his best. "Giuseppe Rossi is our future," commented sporting director Daniele Pradè this summer. If the start to the season is anything to go by, Pradè was emphatically right.
With marquee summer signing Mario Gómez ruled out for the first few months of the season, it has been left up to Rossi to shoulder much of the attacking burden. The 26-year-old is the viola's only senior striker in Gómez's absence, with the attacking alternatives -- Ante Rebić and Ryder Matos -- both only 20 and lacking in Serie A experience.
Nonetheless, an exceptional return of eight goals in as many games has shown Rossi to be more than capable of spearheading Fiorentina's attack by himself. His latest performance -- in Sunday's 4-2 win over Scudetto holders Juventus -- saw him net a career-first league hat-trick, and was just about a perfect illustration of his great all-round game.
That's despite the fact he cut a frustrated figure throughout the first half, having started as a lone striker in Vincenzo Montella's 3-5-1-1. Fiorentina were disjointed and overwhelmed by their opponents, with the frantic tempo of the game meaning they struggled to retain possession in attack. 2-0 down at the break, Montella has admitted he came close to bringing Rossi off.
Fortunately, he didn't, with the striker netting an early penalty and setting up a remarkable comeback soon after the restart. With their confidence restored by the goal, Fiorentina feverishly surged forward, with the Rossi right at the centre of the purple tornado. He equalised after a wonderful whippet-like dart away from Paul Pogba, before skill turned to instinct and he lashed the ball through a wall of bianconeri defenders and just inside the far post.
Rossi was again involved as the viola took the lead, with a smart decoy run leaving teammate Joaquín Sánchez free in the area to nonchalantly slide the ball in. Fiorentina's fourth and Rossi's hat trick came minutes later, and was arguably the best goal of the lot. Juan Cuadrado tore down the left before rolling the ball central for Rossi to charge onto on the edge of the box. Without even taking a touch, he powerfully stroked the ball into the bottom corner of the net with a marksman's accuracy.
Fiorentina and Rossi had destroyed the Juventus defence with incredible ferocity, and he looked as fit and fierce as ever. "He works for the team and is not egotistical. He scored extraordinary goals and gave us the strength to win this match," Montella mused after the game, placing emphasis on Rossi's workrate. His mobility and ability to create as well as finish makes him incredibly versatile, and a great complement to his rather more static strike partner, Mario Gómez.
The prospect of witnessing both together in full flow has Florentine mouths watering, while the whole of Italy are licking their lips at the prospect of having Rossi back as a regular starter by the time Brazil 2014 comes around. National team coach Cesare Prandelli is known to be a fan of the striker, having partnered him up front with Antonio Cassano soon after taking charge of the Azzurri, and recently described him as an "integral" part of the Italian national setup.
While it's still very early in the season, and there are still nervous winces whenever Rossi goes to ground or limps over to the physio, the early signs are looking excellent. His hat-trick against Juventus was world class, and he continues to make a mockery of the €10 million damaged goods price tag which Fiorentina took advantage of.
There's a sense that Rossi's genuine quality was forgotten; buried under all the injuries and buzz over the new arrivals at the Artemio Franchi this summer. Only now the season has gotten underway has the excavation revealed quite what a phenomenon the viola have on their hands. Let's just hope he now finally gets to prove it once and for all.
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