Kevin Prince Boateng stood poised in the 99th minute at the Sardegna Arena. His new club, Sassuolo, had just won a penalty against Cagliari and Boateng was tasked with nabbing an equaliser. Boateng, with all his experience (Sassuolo the 10th club of his career) raced towards the spot and coolly dispatched the ball into the bottom left hand corner of Alessio Cragno’s goal. A 2-2 draw salvaged for Roberto De Zerbi’s men.
Boateng might just have dedicated his first Sassuolo strike to the late, great Michael Jackson, who would’ve celebrated his 60th birthday several days later. Boateng idolised Jackson in his formative years growing up in West Berlin, and would later imitate the King of Pop at San Siro during Milan’s 18th scudetto celebrations in 2011.
Prince (aptly enough) would surprisingly pull off a decent effort in executing Jackson’s famous moves during a rendition of Billie Jean, much to the laughter of Antonio Cassano and Pippo Inzaghi. Maybe it was a precursor to his latest career venture as a hip-hop artist with the stage name Prin$$.
This is Boateng’s third stint in Serie A, as after being sold by Milan in the summer of 2013, he returned on loan during the belt-tightening latter years of the Berlusconi era. Dalliances in Spain and Germany, with first Las Palmas and then Eintracht Frankfurt, saw him return to the country where not only his family still resides, but where many have suggested he played the best football of his nomadic career. When asked why he had come to Sassuolo, he pointed to the amazing Emilia-Romagna specialty pasta. This is a man now determined to enjoy life and football, but with the right balance. It's not something he was always particularly good at.
Boateng has got off to a bright start with the Neroverdi. Operating as a false nine in De Zerbi’s attack-minded 3-4-3 formation, Boateng has added not just a physical element to Sassuolo’s play, but also a subtle deftness, with some clever touches and link up play with Domenico Berardi and Khouma Babacar.
KPB netted the first in Sassuolo’s chaotic 5-3 win over Genoa before the latest international break. The goal included a beautiful back heel from Babacar in the build-up, sending him through on goal. Boateng was never going to miss.
The signs are there for another promising season for Sassuolo after a disappointing 2017-18 when at one stage it looked like the Neroverdi’s time in the Serie A spotlight might just come to an end. Eusebio Di Francesco had moved on to Roma and much of the side that had over performed in securing a stunning sixth place finish in 2015-16 had either left or aged.
De Zerbi, who gave Benevento much more of a fighting chance of staying in the top division last season than they had any right to, now has a very creditable squad at his disposal. Sassuolo enjoyed a solid summer mercato, with Boateng and Manuel Locatelli drafted in to compliment mainstays like Berardi, Alfred Duncan and Andrea Consigli.
Unbeaten after three games, and claiming yet another scalp over Inter on the opening day has only heightened the sense that Sassuolo could make a serious crack at the top eight this season, something that’s considerably tougher this time around, given the investments made by the top five and to a lesser extent Europa League hopefuls Atalanta and Fiorentina.
On Sunday they travel north to face Juventus, which coincidentally pits first against second, at the Allianz Stadium. Whilst it’s difficult to envisage Boateng and co. leaving Turin with any points, if history tells us anything, it is that De Zerbi’s side will at least give it a go and leave a good account of themselves.
Cast your mind back to last November, and Benevento travelled to Turin rock bottom of the league and without a solitary point on the board. They’d just lost their previous match 5-1 at home to Lazio, and yet took the game to Juventus, and indeed the lead, through a well-crafted Amato Ciciretti free kick. Juventus struggled to break down their winless opponents until well into the second half.
Sassuolo would take a similar performance on Sunday. No matter the outcome against the champions, Sassuolo will ruffle feathers amongst the big boys this season.