PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2020 — GAETANO CASTROVILLI

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It is no secret the passionate Florence natives were both relieved and delighted when Diego Della Valle’s fractious ownership came to an end in June 2019 and a new era began under the stewardship of billionaire and CEO of Mediacom, Rocco B. Commisso.

The Italian-American’s predecessor had an extremely volatile relationship with the supporters, penning an open letter in March insinuating their actions in the terraces and outside club offices would put off any serious bidders considering making a move for the Viola. “We need serious proposals, concrete ideas that are clear and achievable. It’s not enough just to hang banners up overnight, insult people from the blanket of anonymity or scream abuse within a crowd,” Della Valle said.

Fortunately, this provocative claim was disproven just three months later and the excitement continues to build in Tuscany. Fiorentina endured a miserable 2018-19 campaign, particularly from the New Year, losing six of their final eight matches and only narrowly avoided relegation. The Viola were in complete freefall but this great Italian institution is making positive steps and the change at the top of the club undoubtedly came at the right time.

Commisso is making all the right moves and endeared himself to the faithful almost instantly, handing boss Vincenzo Montella a handsome summer transfer kitty. The ex-Roma striker brought in a nice blend of youth and experience, with Franck Ribery the headline act. The Frenchman left Bavaria after over a decade of immense success with Bayern Munich and while eyebrows were initially raised, Ribery has been in inspired form. Shrewd signings such as Erick Pulgar and Pol Lirola have also contributed, while Milan Badelj returned to Artemio Franchi after a year at Lazio.

Fiorentina signed a whopping 13 players in the off-season, sparking doubt on the futures of existing squad members and there were unsurprisingly a number of departures. Montella’s group was heavily inflated and needed freshening up. Jordan Veretout left for Roma, while Cristiano Biraghi and Giovanni Simeone moved to Inter and Cagliari, respectively.

However, amidst all the chaos and player upheaval, a gem within the ranks was unearthed in August. Youngster Gaetano Castrovilli had yet to make a single appearance for Fiorentina, and his coach even admitted he was available if a suitor came calling, before he eventually caught the eye. “I saw after a couple of training sessions in pre-season that we had to take him off the market,” Montella said. “He dribbles remarkably well and I don’t see any midfielder with a better change of pace in Serie A right now. Eventually, he’ll score some goals too.” High praise considering the Minervino Murge native’s relative lack of experience and the calibre of talent plying their trade in Italy’s top flight.

Castrovilli went from strength to strength, impressing in pre-season friendlies and featured in all six of Fiorentina’s opening League games of the 2019-20 campaign. This show of faith from Montella has so far been vindicated, and the well-travelled tactician deserves credit for thrusting the inexperienced midfielder in at the deep end while his job was at stake. The 45-year-old was rehired in April, but had to wait until his 12th match in the dugout to record maximum points. Montella could have easily opted for the more experienced Marco Benassi but continues to be rewarded with mature and game-changing performances.

Castrovilli first announced himself on the domestic stage in the clash with bitter rivals Juventus. The contest in September ended in a goalless draw but it was the 22-year-old’s showing that caught the eye. Castrovilli dominated a Bianconeri midfield including World Cup winners Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira, driving forward on countless occasions and unsettling the spine of Maurizio Sarri’s side. His fearlessness thrilled the Gigliati supporters.

Fast forward a fortnight, and the rising star was again the best performer on the pitch, this time at San Siro, once the home of his idol and inspiration, Kaka. Castrovilli was instrumental in the Viola’s comprehensive 3-1 victory against Milan, scoring one and creating another as he ran the Rossoneri ragged.

The new Fiorentina fan favourite can also mix it up. Despite his small frame, Castrovilli is willing to help his teammates in the defensive third and according to former Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco, ‘has what it takes to do everything.’

Castrovilli has worked his way through the ranks, and learned his trade with Serie B outfit Cremonese for two terms. While his technical ability is now showcased at the highest level on a regular basis, Castrovilli’s versatility has also stood him in good stead, having voluntarily played in a more withdrawn role to help his youth side.

Naturally he is an attacking midfielder, and it shows, as Castrovilli is always so positive and his first thought is to get forward. There are very few passes sideways or backwards and he was on the end of a number of suspect challenges in the ties with Juventus and Milan.

How can this dynamic talent improve? Simply, to stay – and play at Fiorentina under the tutelage of Montella. Castrovilli has gone from being saved from the scrapheap to one of the first names on the team sheet, such is his growing importance and there appears a special affinity with the fans. Of course, the Viola diehards have been here before and will hope he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Federico Bernardeschi, who joined arch foes Juve.

If reports are to be believed, Federico Chiesa is next to move to Turin and if history dictates, Juventus will get their man, especially an emerging Italian. Crucially, though, is game time, and Castrovilli need only look at Bernardeschi, who has stagnated and not kicked-on as expected. The left footer was comfortably the star performer in his Viola days but has paid the price for not playing week in, week out and at the age 25, risks falling away.

Internationally, few would bet against Castrovilli to flourish, and he could have considered himself desperately unlucky not to be in Roberto Mancini’s squad for the double header against Greece and Lichtenstein in October.

After the humiliation of missing out on Euro 2016, Italy have steadily rebuilt, and have arguably the best group of midfielders in Europe. Mancini has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal with Jorginho, Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo and Stefano Sensi all vying for starting roles but Castrovilli is unlikely to be phased by the challenge.

In Jorginho, Verratti and Sensi, the Azzurri have three supremely gifted playmakers, and the Fiorentina starlet is likely to be competing with Zaniolo, Pellegrini and Barella for a squad place.

The Gigliati No. 8 would have been selected in the Azzurrini 23 for the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in June were it not for injury, and would have offered a useful contribution. As it were, Luigi Di Biagio once again failed to get the best out of his squad and Italy bowed out early in the competition.

The future is bright for both Fiorentina and Castrovilli, a €1.38m recruit from Bari. Hardworking, but blessed with great tenacity and composure, the jewel in the Viola’s crown is now likely to be valued close to the €30m mark.

A new contract is reportedly imminent, in a show of faith to the midfielder, and the challenge for both parties is to bring European football back to Tuscany. As galvanizing a signing Ribery has been, September’s Serie A Player of the Month cannot be relied upon beyond 2020 and it is Castrovilli, a captain in the making, who will be the face of this new and exciting project in Florence.

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