If I asked you which Italian centre-back was earning the same marks as Kostas Manolas and Gonzalo Rodriguez, and doing better than the likes of Raul Albiol, you would assume I was talking about one of the Azzurri’s starters.
You’d be wrong.
With an astounding 6.19 average Gazzetta mark at the time of writing, Francesco Acerbi is the fifth-best Serie A defender who’s played at least 18 games, marginally pipping the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, to name two.
Quite the feat for a player who didn’t even know whether he’d live to see 2016. Twice diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013, the 28-year-old Acerbi had to endure accusations of doping (his positive result was due to his medication) and rejection from AC Milan, who had previously sent him to Genoa in exchange for 50% of Kevin Constant. Talk about embarrassment!
And yet, since his return, Acerbi has done more than show that he can play. He’s improved, and drastically so. When Milan bought him back in 2012, he was seen as a punt, someone who belonged to a small club. No-one’s saying that anymore.
What’s happened? The Vizzolo Predabissi native is the first to say that his illness has given him, to put it literally, a new lease of life: “Cancer made me more reflective, and helped me grow up.”
“At Milan, I wasn’t as focussed on football as I am now. At 23-24 years of age, young men go out every now and then, and those who do aren’t stupid. Now I don’t go out, I don’t want to. I live in Formigine, I cook and I watch documentaries on TV”.
Now, Acerbi is one of the league’s highest-rated players, and was recently described as being in a “competitive trance” against former club Milan, a game in which he helped erase Carlos Bacca on the way to a convincing 2-0 win.
There is little doubt that Acerbi deserves a spot on the plane: his marking and read of the game are very good, as are his feet (Sassuolo play it on the deck a lot), physicality and eye for goal (partner Paolo Cannavaro generally lets him foray forward for set pieces), with an impressive seven strikes over two seasons.
At 28, he is young compared to Juventus’ BBC, but old and savvy enough to tutor Italy’s defenders of the future, likely Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani. But therein lies the rub: former Bianconeri Coach Antonio Conte sits on the Italy bench, and his faith in the BBC has remained unshaken, despite an error-prone qualifying campaign.
It is not so much a question of whether Acerbi deserves to go to France, but rather whether he has any chance of playing there, short of an injury crisis. He’s only racked up one appearance in 18 months (and in a 4-1 defeat to Germany to boot), and has the likes of Davide Astori, Andrea Ranocchia and Matteo Darmian (for a three-man defence) in the running with him.
That said, if there’s someone who won’t lose too much sleep over it, it’s the mole-lipped neroverde, who usually sports a (frankly horrific) moustache to cover up his birthmark: “I don’t have this obsession with making the national team. No-one has ever asked me what I want in life. I want to be happy, truly happy. And if you asked me whether I was, I’d answer yes, I finally am”.
Though we may not see much of Acerbi this summer, he deserves his spot on the plane, and not just for sentimental reasons.
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