Our columnist looks at Nicolo Zaniolo's incredible 2018-19 campaign to date, and the hard work that is still to come for the youngster...
The sizzling Roman heat in the summer of 2018 was felt from the top of the Spanish Steps to the base of the Colosseum. Trigoria was no exception and, as the transfer season began, some fan-favourites were making way for new talent.
When Radja Nainggolan departed to Inter Milan, a tangible tension consumed the air surrounding the training centre.
Questions arose over the summer sales, and the competitiveness of the arriving players - few more so than one of the players that came back the other way as part of the Nainggolan deal, Nicolo Zaniolo. The 19-year-old was generally unknown. Coming from Massa and Carrara province, the area of Michelangelo’s favorite quarries for his marble masterpieces, he was assumed to be a piece for the future, a player whose potential may see him make a limited impact on the first-team one day.
Although he had led Inter’s Primavera to the championship as their top scorer the year before, he was still little more than a prospect. Afterall, he was yet to have made an appearance in the top flight of Italian football.
With the beginning of the season being full of ups and downs, manager Eusebio Di Francesco was searching for the winning formula. After experimenting with different offensive lineups, it was on September 19 that Zaniolo was given his baptism by fire.
Making his debut against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League - a competition Los Blancos had won an unprecedented three times in a row - the media questioned how the tactician could start a raw prospect in such a profound match. There was no hesitation from the manager though, he had full confidence in the youngster, proving fundamental to his self-belief.
Although Roma came away as the lesser of the two sides, Roma’s new teenager was the surprise of the night. Not only had he held his own, he had even excelled at points. His strength on the ball seemed that of a fully-grown man, yet he was still only 19. He left the stadium with his head held high that night, one positive on an otherwise disappointing night.
When temperatures dropped in early December, injuries began to pick up around Trigoria. Javier Pastore was forced out due to a nagging calf issue, while Stephan El Shaarawy and Perotti also faced time out. Roma needed a spark to push the attack, and Di Francesco summed young Nicolo to the call.
While the teenage prodigy had been primarily used off the bench thus far, his next match he would be starting - against none other than his former club, Inter Milan. At the heart of the attacking midfield, he was slotted behind frontman Edin Dzeko, with the stable Steven Nzonzi to his rear.
Such balance in the centre allowed Zaniolo more freedom against the Nerazzurri, where he was able to showcase his size and strength, as well as his explosive pace. Aside from drawing an almost-certain-penalty – which was inexplicably not given, despite the presence of VAR - the attacking midfielder was always active, conjuring several shots and successful dribbles respectively.
In intermittent appearances after that, Zaniolo experienced the highs and lows that come with pro football – an assist in the win over Genoa, a minor error that eventually led to a goal in the defeat to Juventus. With just Sassuolo and Parma on the calendar before the New Year, Roma – and Zaniolo - had their last two chances to end 2018 on a high note, and maintain the race for the Champions League positions.
The day after Christmas, Zaniolo was given the nod to start against Roberto De Zerbi’s attacking Sassuolo.
Deep into the second half, Roma need just one more goal to kill the match. After goals by Diego Perotti and Patrik Schick, Zaniolo was waiting in the wings for his moment. His time was about to come as he was played down the right sideline. In what looked to be an inopportune position for a pass, let alone a break on goal, he pushed the ball past the Neroverdi wingback down to the touchline.
With two defenders on him, he cut past the first.
Then, as time seemingly stood still, he faked a movement to the left dropping the defender, and then Andrea Consigli to the floor. He had just a split second to execute the hardest part - and in the coolest fashion, Zaniolo chipped the ball over the keeper, who lay helplessly with arms flailing. An incredible goal for the world’s finest, let alone for the first in his professional career.
Collecting six points to end the year, Roma had laid the groundwork for 2019. Zaniolo was on his path, and the marble core was slowly being chiseled. Four months to the day after his debut against Real Madrid, the young and mysterious attacker from Massa had grown into an important player for the Giallorossi. When they faced Torino that Saturday afternoon, another incredible, unexpected goal marked out his potential for greatness.
Lost in the ecstasy of that goal, Roma’s immaturity had allowed Torino back into the match - and it was only a striker’s finish from El Shaarawy that restored the lead. Such escape acts came to a halt when Roma came across Atalanta a week later. Zaniolo had two assists, but the squandering of a 3-0 advantage was understandably all anyone wanted to talk about.
Zaniolo was at least fully established as one to watch in Italy by now – something aided once again by his goal in the 1-1 draw with AC Milan. He had rescued his team a valuable point, and in the big picture, rose from an unknown teenage prospect, into one of the dependable options within the squad.
When the Champions League resumed in Rome for the first leg of the Round of 16, Porto approached the match as leaders in the Primeira Liga. Having been knocked out by in the playoff-round just two years before, Roma had a chance at not just redemption, but the chance to take command ahead of the return leg.
Roma had gone into the second half in a deadlock, but knew that if they had just continued playing their game, the results would come. Then, with just 20 minutes of play remaining, Dzeko drew the last defender as he chested the ball down, laying it off to Zaniolo who was waiting to his side.
As the ball sailed past Iker Casillas, the Olimpico erupted under the floodlights - and then again just six minutes later, as the Bosnian’s shot cannoned off the post, and his counterpart followed the ball to double the lead.
In the process, he had become Roma’s youngest ever Champions League goal scorer, and the youngest Italian player in history to score two Champions League goals in one match.
Now Europe knew his name too.
Whereas Porto were fortunate to grab a goal back, there was nothing about luck that had to do with Zaniolo’s rise. From a mysterious youngster, to one of Roma’s key players, his ascent has been profound.
However, he, as well as his team, are far from being a finished product.
He has certainly hit the ground running among the pros, but life will not always be this easy for Zaniolo - challenges will come, form will fluctuate (as it does with any young player) and demands on his time will become greater and greater.
He has shown his undoubted potential, yes, but to deliver on that he still has much work ahead.
And that starts right. With the top four spots in the league uncertain, and all to play for in the second leg against Porto, the young player must continue to stay determined and tenacious, and have his teammates feed off that energy.
In turn, the maturity of the veterans around him should help impart the right focus and attitude.
Only with eyes ahead and feat on the ground, can Zaniolo keep chiseling away on his marble block in aim to create a career masterpiece.