Luigi Di Biagio’s young Azzurrini begin their European Under-21 Championship chase in Group C against Denmark. The Italians, boasting as strong a side as any traveling to Poland this month, must be considered as legitimate favorites to lift the cup when it’s all said and done.
Up and down the pitch lies endless star power. As the last line of defence in net, the precociously talented 18-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma’s freakishly large frame makes his presence felt. Defensively, a loaded back bank employing Mattia Caldara, Daniele Rugani, Andrea Conti and Antonio Barreca could go toe-to-toe with the best of them. Box-to-box dynamo Roberto Gagliardini handles the bulk of midfield responsibility, while Fiorentina’s highly-regarded winger Federico Bernardeschi slots in on the left-hand wing.
But, opposite the Viola stud is an individual with perhaps the most prove to not only his country, but also himself. His name? Domenico Berardi.
Temperamental, yet oozing heaps of untapped potential, the 22-year-old – when on his game – often delivers spellbinding performances when wearing the Sassuolo shirt. A nagging knee injury forced Berardi to the sidelines for the majority of the first half of the current campaign, limiting him to 21 Serie A appearances. Yet anyone who frequently tunes in to Serie A each weekend knows how prolific Berardi can be when composed, wired in and fully invested in wreaking havoc.
Berardi’s age suggests a youngster who has only just recently begun sniffing top- flight football, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Evident in his 159 appearances for the Neroverdi, the Cariati native has long been a menace in Italy’s first division, even turning down numerous invites from Juventus and Inter for a larger stage. However, Italians would be lying to you if they weren’t demanding more from their tenacious attacker on the international level.
In June 2014 at the lively age of 19, Berardi earned his first U-21 cap with Di Biagio. Since that 4-0 debut in a friendly versus Montenegro, he has amassed a total of 20 appearances, but has scored only three times. He remains one of this generation’s top young Italian stars, despite the tantrums and tirades at the club level sometimes getting the best of his emotions.
This is hardly news to the Federation, who gave him a nine-month ban for failing to attend an Under-19 call-up, thus violating their code of ethics.
Last month, Giampiero Ventura granted Berardi his unofficial Azzurri debut in an 8-0 thrashing of San Marino. Based on what we’ve seen from the Italian tactican’s open-mindedness with respect to call-ups since taking the post from Antonio Conte, youth has – and will have - a place in the side going forward.
But if Berardi is to convince Ventura he is worthy of a spot on next summer’s World Cup roster headed to Russia, it’s time to prove it – right here, right now.
Italy have won a record five U-21 titles, and if a sixth honour is to fill the trophy cabinet, Di Biagio will need Berardi to rise to the occasion throughout the competition. The Under-21 Euros in Poland are a test of maturity and coming of age for Berardi.