Nicolo Zaniolo received the ball deep into his own half and started his mazy run forward, effortlessly passing Juventus players one after another as though they weren't there.
He had been teasing them all evening, but this was the most brilliant move of a sensational performance. It should have been rewarded with a goal, but fate decided differently – and tragedy ensued.
The young Roma star was stopped on the edge of the penalty area by a Matthijs de Ligt tackle, which looked innocent, but was disastrous. Zaniolo fell to the ground screaming. He tore his cruciate knee ligaments.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini held his head in disbelief in the stands. The brightest Italian star's season was over in early January, and he was out of Euro 2020. That was a cruel blow, and fans across the country – and indeed around the globe – were deeply saddened.
That was in the beginning of the year. It soon turned out that more shocking – much more shocking! – news was coming. The coronavirus crisis forced Serie A to stop playing for more than three months, while Uefa had to postpone the European Championships to 2021.
With the entire world in disarray from various points of view, it is only natural that people are looking for some positive aspects of the crisis. Well, they might not be easy to find, but here is one – Zaniolo's recovery process mostly took place during the shutdown. Barring new unexpected disasters, he will lead Italy at Euro 2020 next summer, and he was even able to finish the current season in style. The 21-year-old returned to action as a substitute during the July matches, scoring brilliant individual goals versus Brescia and SPAL.
Then, on Saturday, he faced the Old Lady once again.
Zaniolo received the ball deep into his own half and started his mazy run forward, effortlessly passing Juventus players one after another as though they weren't there. He had been teasing them all evening, but this was the most brilliant move of a sensational performance. It should have been rewarded with a goal – and this time it was!
Roughly from the spot where he was fouled by De Ligt six months earlier, Zaniolo provided an exquisite through ball to Diego Perotti, who duly scored. It was one of the best assists of the season – arguably the most beautiful of them all.
This time, fans – including Mancini – were forced to watch the game on TV, but there are advantages to that. When witnessing such pieces of magic, you want to watch a lot of replays from all the possible angles. What Zaniolo is capable of producing is pure art.
One famous art admirer and collector is Fabio Capello. The famous coach was strict and rarely smiled throughout his career, but even he is absolutely enchanted with the Roman sensation. He is head over heels. After witnessing the incredible show at Juventus, the 74-year-old managerial maestro stated:
Quelle magnifique percée de Zaniolo, cette projection vers l’avant et la passe pour Perotti qui conclue parfaitement. 😍pic.twitter.com/XwsTiMYd2K— MinutesFoot (@MinutesFoot) August 1, 2020
"I am in love with Zaniolo, because he has everything at the highest level: power, quality and pace.
"There are players out there with a lot of potential, but not like him. Looking at the assist for Perotti against Juventus, to reach the edge of the area after running from midfield with the ball at his feet and still having the cool head to make that precise pass, that means he has great vision and a really precise feel for the ball.
"I don’t see other young players as good as Zaniolo around at the moment, so I think he has the potential to become a Ballon d’Or winner. Kaka didn’t have the same strength as Zaniolo."
The mention of Kaka isn't incidental. The superstar used to be Zaniolo's idol during his Milan days, and the kid was especially impressed with the Brazilian's ability to change pace and direction. The best example was the famous goal scored at Old Trafford in the 2007 Champions League semi-finals when Kaka made Manchester United's Patrice Evra and Gabriel Heinze collide and knock each other to the ground without touching them. "That goal defines Kaka," Zaniolo said as a youngster, and not many footballers are capable of talking that way.
That is why he is so special. Zaniolo has always understood the game better than anyone on the pitch, and he even studied opponents himself when reaching the final of the European Under-19 Championships in 2018. The way he combines force and exquisite ball skills is truly reminiscent of Kaka.
The Italian wonderkid is more than capable of overpowering any opponent, but he prefers to outfox them. The speed of his running is second only to his speed of thought. Not for nothing did Stefano Vecchi, Inter's Primavera coach, claim back two years ago: "Zaniolo can be our phenomenon."
It is hard to believe that Fiorentina released him from their academy just a year previously, because they apparently failed to notice the potential. It is ever more difficult to believe that Inter themselves chose to sell Zaniolo to Roma for a laughable price of just €4.5m. That was one of the greatest steals ever by any standards, and Monchi is quite an expert as far as brilliant deals are concerned.
The Spaniard who worked as Roma's sporting director was informed about Zaniolo's talents back in 2017 when the youngster enjoyed a short spell at Virtus Entella in Serie B. The Giallorossi couldn't sign him that time as the midfielder preferred Inter, but Monchi kept the name in his book – and duly found the right opportunity to snap him up.
It happened in the summer of 2018 when ex-Roma coach Luciano Spalletti was desperate to bring his beloved midfield general Radja Nainggolan to San Siro. Inter were ready to do almost anything in their power to reunite the Belgian with his mentor, and Monchi took advantage of that in order to include Zaniolo as a minor part of the big swap.
In retrospect, the whole affair looks even more bizarre. While Nainggolan failed to settle at Inter and Spalletti left soon afterwards, Zaniolo simply flourished at Roma, ever since making his debut at Santiago Bernabeu of all places, mightily impressing against Real Madrid in the Champions League
I am in love with Zaniolo, because he has everything at the highest level: power, quality and pace.Fabio Capello
He was voted as the best young player in Serie A in his first season in 2018/19, got even better in the beginning of the current season before suffering the knee injury – and now he has apparently returned even better after recovering from it. The Sky is the limit for the man who loves roaming free in midfield, especially if Roma coach Paulo Fonseca uses him correctly, instead of limiting him to specific positions on the wing or as a second striker.
Naturally, he is expected to be a hot name during the transfer window. Juventus themselves are very keen on signing him, as are Real Madrid, Tottenham and Liverpool – and the list of suitors should be much longer. Monchi might not have convinced most of the Roma fans, and his overall record in the Eternal City is rather problematic, but he left a massive present in Zaniolo, and that specific moment should be enough for the sporting director to be remembered very fondly.
Now Monchi is back at Sevilla, where he made his name initially – and the goal is to win the Europa League again. Ironically, the Andalusians must overcome Roma in the last 16, and Zaniolo is ready to gun them down. The star wasn't supposed to take part in the fixtures originally scheduled for March, but he is now fully fit, making Roma favourites in the rescheduled single fixture in Duisburg on Thursday.
Whether he stays at Stadio Olimpico or not, he dreams of winning his first personal title this term. Wouldn't that be a magnificent ending to the season that was supposed to be over for the likeable superstar in the making back in January?