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Fiorentina’s injuries open the door for a handful of talented youngsters

The 5 youth players called up for the clash against Monza offer a glimpse of a rosy Viola future.

Italy Training Camp Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

With Fiorentina set to take on Monza tomorrow after a 6-week layoff in the middle of the season (still a wildly stupid idea), Vincenzo Italiano has submitted his first squad list of the post-World Cup campaign, and it’s a doozy. While you might have thought that the break would’ve given the Viola time to get everyone healthy, the opposite happened, and the players he called up illustrate that.

The absences are Pierluigi Gollini, Rolando Mandragora, Szymon Żurkowski, Nicolás González, and Riccardo Sottil. While Gollini and Żurkowski have been outside the first-team picture for months, the remaining three are pillars of the XI. Add to that the fact that Dodô and Sofyan Amrabat may not be entirely fit, and you’ve got a plethora of holes throughout the squad.

Stepping up to fill them are 5 Primavera players: GK Tommaso Martinelli, RB Michael Kayode, CM Alessandro Bianco, AM Lorenzo Amatucci, and RW Alfredo Distefano. While Bianco and Distefano have already had cameos with the senior side, they’re definitely not regulars. Martinelli, Kayode, and Amatucci have never played a minute above Primavera level. Let’s get to know them a bit, shall we?

Tommaso Martinelli

Date and place of birth: 6 January 2006 in Bagno a Ripoli

Position: goalkeeper

2022-2023 statistics: 10 appearances (10 starts), 9 goals conceded, 5 clean sheets

The skinny: Still only 16 years old, Martinelli has already established himself as one of Italy’s best prospects between the sticks, as evidenced by Roberto Mancini calling him to a senior Azzurri training camp last month, where the custodian was the youngest player in the group. Already a fixture for the U17s, he’s already building a national reputation.

Most of that is based on his club form. Martinelli skipped the U17 level entirely and moved straight from the U15s to the U19s, taking the number one job over the more experienced options Davide Bertini. His stats speak for themselves, although I’ll add that he’s not just the beneficiary of a good defense; he’s made some stunning stops against players who are often 3 years older than he is. He’s as good a shot stopper as you’d expect, but he’s also more than happy to come off his line and attack crosses in a way that belies his tender age.

Wearing the number 30—the number of Luca Toni and Khouma Babacar—he made Italiano’s squad for the Salernitana game and looks set to serve as the third-string goalkeeper behind Pietro Terracciano and Michele Cerofolini unless Fiorentina adds another goalie in the mercato. While a Serie A debut may be a step too far this year, he’s already got the look of a

Michael Kayode

Date and place of birth: 10 July 2004 in Borgomanero (32 km/20 mi north of Novara

Position: primarily rightback but comfortable at leftback or right midfield

2022-2023 statistics: 12 appearances (12 starts), 1 goal, 1 yellow card, 1 red card

The skinny: After joining Fiorentina from Gozzano in 2021 after leaving the Juventus academy, the Nigerian-Italian has been an ever-present for Alberto Aquilani’s Primavera, starting 44 of 53 matches. Spending much of last year on the left flank, he’s back on his more natural right side and has impressed enough to earn 4 U19 caps for Italy this year.

A tireless runner who loves to get forward, Kayode’s influence in the final third is mostly limited to his off-ball movement at this point, as his passing hasn’t quite caught up, although he did score his first Viola goal with a damn overhead kick against Cesena, which was really, really cool.

Unlike many modern fullbacks, though, Kayode loves the defensive side of the game. He excels at sweeping up behind his centerbacks and has the speed and quickness to stay in front of tricky wingers. He’s also got a perfect attitude, celebrating big tackles with a roar and a fist pump. Under contract until 2025, he apparently caught Italiano’s eye while training with the first team last month and could see some minutes if Lorenzo Venuti moves this January and Dodô’s recurring injuries persist.

Alessandro Bianco

Date and place of birth: 1 October 2002 in Turin

Position: central midfield, defensive midfield

2022-2023 statistics: 3 appearances (0 starts)

The skinny: The only guy who’s aged out of Primavera level in this mini-list, the former Torino man (never Juventus for this guy) was the best U19 player for Aquilani last year, showing that rare ability to take a match by the scruff of the neck and win it. That’s normally a trait associated with attackers, so seeing it from a guy who spent long stretches as a regista or a box-to-box guy is even more special.

At his best, Bianco’s an all-action force in the middle of the park, equally capable of pinging vertical passes into space for the forwards, carrying the ball through the lines, sneaking in behind opposing defenses, and dropping deep to dictate play. That versatility is rare in such a young player, and his technique matches it: he’s got a lovely first touch and strikes the ball as well as anyone you’ll see. He joined Martinelli at the Italy camp last year and should add to his 5 U20 caps until he ages into the next level.

While he’s been limited to just 70 minutes in the Conference League so far, he’s absolutely one for the future. Locked into a contract until 2026 with an option for another year, he could play meaningful minutes for the senior side this year, given the exodus occurring in the engine room and his apparent perfect fit for Italiano’s tactics—I’ve never seen a midfielder more adept at jumping into passing lanes high up the pitch to kickstart counterattacks. Capped 5 times for the Italy U20s, he needs to play this year, whether it’s with the Viola or in Serie B on loan.

Lorenzo Amatucci

Date and place of birth: 5 February 2004 in Rome

Position: central midfield, but capable of playing as a regista or as a trequartista

2022-2023 statistics: 10 appearances (10 starts), 3 assists

The skinny: Having worked his way up through the Viola ranks, Amatucci has taken Bianco’s mantle as Aquilani’s main playmaker for the Primavera; he’s got a remarkable knack for floating passes over the top of the defense for his forwards to track down, although he often seems more comfortable keeping things tidy and moving the ball along the carpet.

His real best attribute, though, is his defensive work. He reads the game with a remarkable maturity and has gotten quite good at cutting out passes, but his standout quality is, without a doubt, his tackling. A powerful, tenacious figure in the middle of the pitch, he’s never afraid to stick a foot in and rarely lets anything by him; his disciplinary record (3 yellow cards since the start of last year) really drives home just how perfect his timing is.

Like Kayode, he really impressed in the friendlies during the World Cup break, earning praise from Italiano which shot him into the spotlight. He never looked overawed by playing against the senior players and projects as an excellent ball-winning midfielder at the next level, but if he can keep improving his passing, he could wind up being a genuine threat in possession as well.

Alfredo Distefano

Date and place of birth: 28 August 2003 in Camaiore (25 km/15 mi northwest of Lucca)

Position: left wing, right wing, attacking midfield, striker

2022-2023 statistics: 12 appearances (11 starts), 4 goals, 3 assists

The skinny: A stocky, industrious attacker who can play all across the front line, Distefano looks like an unpleasant proposition for any fullback. He’s got pace, quickness, and technique, but more than anything, his tenacity and cunning make him tough to stop. As the most important player in the Primavera attack, he’s shown tremendous growth this year to become more of a creator than just a dribbler and goalscorer.

While he showed flashes last year, I thought that he was too eager to put his head down and go it alone when stationed in the middle or on the left, where he could cut onto his stronger right foot. When pushed out to the right, however, he showed an unexpected capacity to go down the line and put in good crosses, as well as juddering inside to shoot himself. This year, though, he’s looked every bit the creative wide forward, constantly threatening defenses both with and without the ball, which is exactly the kind of growth I’d hoped for.

He’s made his senior team debut, too, playing the final half hour against RFS after Fiorentina had gone up 0-3 in the first half. His energy and spikiness jumped right off the screen, although he was a bit loose with the ball and didn’t really impact play at all. Still, he could be in line for a new deal (his current one expires next year) and a loan move if he’s outgrown the Primavera, although keeping him around to work under Italiano’s watchful eye could help his development as well.

Let’s be totally honest: if any of these 5 players (possibly excepting Bianco) get significant minutes for Fiorentina this year, it will be an indication that things have gone very, very wrong. But with the injuries constantly besetting the senior side, it may well be that these youngsters get a chance to shine.

Really, though, we’re not looking forward to them for this year. It’s their futures that should get us amped up about them. They’ve all got a good chance to feature for the senior side in the next couple of seasons as the latest successes of an academy system that’s built an excellent track record over the past decade of churning out Serie A caliber players, and that’s an excited prospect for any fan.