And the Euro 2020 Winner Is… Sassuolo?
Italy have electrified the Euros, lighting up Rome with two masterful performances, brushing aside both Turkey and Switzerland, scoring half a dozen goals and extending their streak of clean sheets to ten.
Their efforts have the soccer world buzzing, with Roberto Mancini completely revitalising the Azzurri, perhaps already vanquishing the pain of the nation’s spectacular failure to qualify for the last World Cup.
Yet within the justifiable jubilation and hysteria lurks the kind of story that's the stuff of sporting fairytale, and which is being supplied by a tiny club from within the Emilia-Romagna region.
Sassuolo, who’d spent their first 92 years of footballing existence in the lower tiers of Italian football have conspired to forge a rather large role for themselves at this tournament, supplying three pivotal members to the Italian squad which is a number trumped only by the footballing behemoth that is Juventus.
Not only are Manuel Locatelli, Domenico Berardi and Giacomo Raspadori here, but their efforts could go along way towards determining whether the Italians can lift their first European Championship in 53 years.
The Locatelli story itself already looms large. His two-goal, man of the match performance against the Swiss was the kind outing which had sirens blaring throughout Europe.
Within a midfield that already contains Italy’s potential ticket to glory, it's Locatelli who could perhaps take the team over the edge. It’s here where Jorginho’s metronomic presence solidifies and calms the squad, and which allows the box-to-box exploits of Inter Milan's Nicolò Barellato shine as well as the pint-sized mastery of Lorenzo Insigne.
Yet it’s Locatelli who can do a little bit of everything, and equipped with unbridled potential, he just produced a season where his 2,749 completed passes led all of Serie A. To think he was once rejected by AC Milan and sold for a paltry 13 million Euros truly beggars belief, particularly with the likes of Juventus and PSG now circling, and with the bidding for the 23-year old’s services expected to start at around 40 million euros.
As for Domenico Berardi, the Calabrian has started both games for Italy and already contributed a team-high 6 key passes and drilled in 7 shots. Just as he’s continually done for Sassuolo, Berardi is causing conniptions for opposition defenders already stressed out of their minds having to deal with the threat of Ciro Immobile, to say nothing of that midfield which provides a restless conga line of opportunities.
While no, Berardi’s yet to score at the Euros, he had in Italy’s four previous games, while it’s something he’s done no less than 97 times for his club.
While Sassuolo’s adoring fans watch his exploits on the biggest stage, they’ll well remember that it was a 17-year old Berardi who scored 11 goals and provided 6 assists when the club first secured promotion to Serie A in 2013.
And finally, there’s Giacomo Raspadori, the youngest member of the Italian team and who joined Sassuolo when he was just 9-years old. The 21-year old stormed his way into the national team off the back of a series of late-season exploits for Sassuolo which saw him score against both Roma and Juventus, with a memorable game-wining double against AC Milan wedged in between. Even if these Euros aren't his time to shine, his future looks bright.
But the main character here is of course Italy.
They’re the ones stomping around the stage with the lights focused firmly on them. They've got the big lines and the dramatic moments, and have audiences around the world spellbound.
It's Italy who's stolen the show, spectacularly re-introducing themselves on the biggest stage, showing the world that pain and humiliation are temporary, so long as one's serious about their rehabilitation.
Yet within this play exists the peculiar figure of Sassuolo who've already provided such a unique subplot, as well as big chunk of serious labor.
While Italy might go all the way and make this a truly unforgettable tournament for this football-obsessed nation, you can rest assured that Sassuolo will have played a massive role.
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