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The Serie A Thread

Started by Steve,

1,579 posts in this topic
3 hours ago, Blue-in-me-Veins said:

@CHOULO19 Curious to hear your thoughts on yesterday's match. 

I only caught glimpses of it as I had some visitors over at the time of the match.

So I have no idea about specifics but I predicted that Inter would win. It was so obvious, the motivation for Inter to win the match was on a completely different level than that of Juve's.

My best friend is an Interista and before the match my exact prediction was that "Inter would win this match but go on to lose 3 of their next 5 matches and de Boer would be sacked before Jan".

As for Juve, they're becoming more like PSG. It's becoming harder to motivate players for the league which they could win without breaking a sweat and unless the league as a whole improves it will be next to impossible for Juve to win the CL.

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On 9/19/2016 at 8:36 PM, Blue-in-me-Veins said:

Mauro Icardi Da Gawd! So happy that Peter Ausilio, Morratti, and the Sunning Group were able to thwart Napoli's mega-money 60M Euro bid for him. He truly is the heart of this Inter squad. 

Great player and his goal scoring ratio is superb, something like 61 or 62 goals in 120 matches in all competitions for Inter. Think Chelsea was linked to him massively in one of the winter transfer windows. Can't remember which one it was though. The 2014 or the 2015 one. Now he is worth at least 70, maybe 80m with the new TV deal ready to kick in...

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On 9/19/2016 at 11:45 PM, CHOULO19 said:

My best friend is an Interista and before the match my exact prediction was that "Inter would win this match but go on to lose 3 of their next 5 matches and de Boer would be sacked before Jan".


Yes, I am actually psychic. :P

Roquila likes this

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It's so close in the Serie A the one thing the Serie A makes is that Serie A teams are tactically set up better than in any other league.

Juventus 45pts

Roma 44pts

Napoli 41 pts

Lazio 40 pts

Inter 36 pts 

Milan 36 pts

Atalanta 35 pts 

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Club president Andrea Agnelli says logo took a year to create


Lmao, a year :lol: You go through years of designer school and the result is that it takes A YEAR to create a white on black single word and two crooked sticks. Should have become a digital designer, you get paid for almost nothing.

primax79 likes this

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Juventus sailing on the open seas.

This site (http://www.juventibus.com/home/), in the section Megamenu - Bar Sport - #jvtbClip, it makes some highlights of the team's games, lately they are thematic on a player but usually they contain offensive/defensive nice actions, indifferently from goals.

Do you know any site which does the same for one or more major PL teams?

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Only 4 points between winners Juventus & 2nd-placed Roma. Juventus fans considered it a good season; Roma fans considered theirs to not be all that great. Amazing how the 2 mindsets have changed in just a year.

'Juventus can't be topped; Serie A is a one-horse race' - etc. Lol. I'd agree that Juve are the only team with enough power to do well both in the league and in Europe, but they won't win every league title for the next decade. There's 3 or so teams who'll get in there too, maybe Lazio, Napoli & Roma.
No team had fewer losses than Napoli; and Juventus have only 1 win more than Roma, 2 more than Napoli.

Next season's going to be twice as exciting as this one. This was a building season for every league bar La Liga.

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Only 4 points between winners Juventus & 2nd-placed Roma. Juventus fans considered it a good season; Roma fans considered theirs to not be all that great. Amazing how the 2 mindsets have changed in just a year.

'Juventus can't be topped; Serie A is a one-horse race' - etc. Lol. I'd agree that Juve are the only team with enough power to do well both in the league and in Europe, but they won't win every league title for the next decade. There's 3 or so teams who'll get in there too, maybe Lazio, Napoli & Roma.

No team had fewer losses than Napoli; and Juventus have only 1 win more than Roma, 2 more than Napoli.

Next season's going to be twice as exciting as this one. This was a building season for every league bar La Liga.

Roma failed in the CL playoff, got knocked out the EL relatively early, got knocked out of the Cup by Lazio & are just in 2nd (have to beat Genoa to guarantee CL football). Known as the nearly men

Several reasons for them to be disappointed despite having the best duo in Serie A right now in Salah & Dzeko.

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Grande Totti :(

That was some way to end your career, brilliant scenes at Olimpico.

I was never Roma fan or anything, but that was so sad, Totti is without doubt one of biggest names in football for many reasons. Kudos for staying at Roma and becoming such an icon. 

Football will never be the same again without the likes of Totti or JT. 

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‘I wish all the black players would get out of this league’:

Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba calls for mass exodus from Serie A after Romelu Lukaku suffered vile monkey chants at Cagliari



the top black/part black Serie A players


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the rest of the black Serie A players (to show how many would all have to leave to do a complete boycott) including loaned out players



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Also one of the reasons Rudi is having a blast here, we have always had plenty black players, you could instantly see he was much easier at ease.

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Kudos to Sinisa Mihajlovic Bologna coach. He's fighting leukaemia and his Bologna side is second at the table after Conte's Inter. 

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James Horncastle’s Serie A Team of the Year


James Horncastle's Serie A Team of the Year – The Athletic

It’s that time of year when players and journalists alike typically start voting for the end of season awards.

Here, The Athletic has picked its Serie A Team of the Year. The criteria is simple enough. No more than three players per club and if you haven’t started 10 league games, you’re not getting in.


Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus)

The Pole’s name rarely comes up in debates about the best goalkeepers in the world. Maybe his reputation as a joker makes it hard for people to take him seriously. Still, it’s odd Szczesny doesn’t receive greater recognition when you consider how much his career has kicked on since moving to Italy almost five years ago. “First I had the best goalkeeper in the world (Alisson) as my back-up. Now the best goalkeeper of all time (Gianluigi Buffon),” he laughs. In all seriousness, keeping Alisson out of the starting XI while on loan at Roma and succeeding Buffon at Juventus is, frankly, an astonishing achievement.

The 30-year-old signed a new contract in February and there are no questions about his place in the team. Giorgio Chiellini’s six-month absence with a knee injury and Juventus’ transition to a completely different way of defending under new coach Maurizio Sarri mean Szczesny has been busier than usual. Fortunately he has stepped up, protecting leads and keeping Juventus in games.

StatsBomb data shows the former Arsenal man leads the league in “goals saved above average”, with 0.32 per 90 minutes. All told, an average goalkeeper would have let in six more goals this season, and the stop he made from Allan in August, which started a counter-attack ending in the opening goal a 4-3 win against Napoli, set the tone for an excellent year. 

Davide Faraoni (Hellas Verona)

This was one of the trickiest selections to make. Right-back is a bit of a problem position for Italy. Alessandro Florenzi has played there a lot in recent years without ever looking entirely comfortable and, after losing his place at Roma, didn’t have time to make an impact with Valencia following a January loan move.

Antonio Candreva’s return to form in a wing-back role under Antonio Conte (with seven Serie A goal involvements at Inter this season) perhaps gives him the stronger case for inclusion. In the end, though, the decision became a toss-up between Faraoni and Napoli’s Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who is now starting for Italy on the right. Why settle on the Verona wing-back? Well, for a team that doesn’t score much, Faraoni’s impact (three goals and three assists) on their remarkable return to the top flight has been greater than Di Lorenzo’s on Napoli.

His tandem with Darko Lazovic has been one of the strengths of Ivan Juric’s team and, according to StatsBomb, Faraoni is second among right-sided players for counter pressures in the opposition’s half. Di Lorenzo, on the other hand, has often had to play on the left because of injuries to Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam, not to mention centre-back in Kalidou Koulibaly’s absence.

Watching Faraoni back in the big time is nice for those who remember him coming through at Inter — where he appeared in the Champions League — at the twilight of the treble-winning era almost a decade ago. Traded to Udinese in 2012 as part of a deal involving Samir Handanovic, and then to Watford, who were down in the Championship at the time, the majority of his career has been played out in the second tiers. Keep this up, though, and he could go to the Euros.


Stefan de Vrij (Inter Milan)

Quiet and unassuming, it perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that De Vrij slips to the back of people’s minds when they argue over the best centre-backs in Europe. In Italy, the most talked-about Dutchman is Matthijs de Ligt, an entirely understandable state of affairs given the captain’s role he played during Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals a year ago and his £74.7 million move to Juventus last summer.

In Europe, Virgil van Dijk is the defender most associated with the Netherlands. Widely renowned as the world’s best, another colossal transfer fee (£75 million), and his transformative effect on Liverpool mean the name De Vrij fades into the background.

It doesn’t help, perhaps, that the best-known moment of his career so far was giving away a penalty while playing for Lazio in a de-facto Champions League play-off against Inter — after the news had broken that he’d be joining them that summer. That was unfortunate, but the 28-year-old has put it behind him with assured displays at the heart of Inter’s back three.

The Feyenoord academy graduate has no single stand-out attribute. Unlike Leonardo Bonucci and David Luiz, the other high-profile centre-backs Conte played through the middle at Juventus and Chelsea respectively, De Vrij doesn’t spray diagonals and turn defence into attack with a pass. He does step up and play tidily with midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, though, and his anticipation without the ball, cutting out passes to strikers, is the hallmark of an intelligent defender.

Excellent in both Milan derbies, his record of two goals and three assists makes De Vrij the league’s most dangerous attacking centre-back after Atalanta’s superb Rafael Toloi. As free transfers go, Diego Godin and Nemanja Vidic did not match expectations at Inter. De Vrij, by contrast, has exceeded them and he will likely be the club’s next captain once Handanovic retires. 

Francesco Acerbi (Lazio)

The outstanding centre-back in the best defence in the league, Acerbi’s story continues to inspire.

Twice diagnosed with testicular cancer, he returned to play 149 consecutive games in Serie A and finished qualifying for the Euros as Italy’s starting centre-back beside captain Bonucci. The 32-year-old, who replaced De Vrij at Lazio, has matured — Acerbi used to turn up for training still drunk from the night before at the start of his career — and has belatedly fulfilled the potential that led Milan to sign him as Alessandro Nesta’s successor in 2012.

A one-man wall in the Rome derby in January, when Acerbi also popped up for Lazio’s equaliser, he scored a long-range screamer against Torino in October which must be a candidate for his club’s goal of the season. Chiellini’s knee-surgery absence and Koulibaly’s rough year for Napoli have all led us to focus a little more on Acerbi and his key role in Lazio’s unexpected title challenge.

Acerbi won the nation’s hearts last October when he decided to stay behind and get a taxi back to their hotel when the national team’s visit to a children’s hospital came to an end. “I’m not going anywhere until I’ve seen everyone,” he said. For that gesture alone, Acerbi is one of the first names on The Athletic’s team sheet.

Robin Gosens (Atalanta)

As with Faraoni on the other side, Gosens is a wing-back, however, it’d be criminal to overlook him on a technicality. Theo Hernandez has generated a lot of hype, and deservedly so, as AC Milan’s second-top scorer, but our left flank belongs to the less-glamorous Gosens. Perplexingly, he remains uncapped at international level, with the Netherlands hoping to persuade the dual national to choose them over Germany.

The 25-year-old has scored or assisted 12 times in 22 appearances, the highest total for a defender in the league. Gosens has flourished since Leonardo Spinazzola’s 2018 departure and, with Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata drifting across to combine with him, Atalanta possess the best left side since the peak of Ghoulam, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne at Napoli. No wing-back in Italy is as big a threat in the air as Gosens. His late runs and well-coordinated far post finishes have allowed him to make impacts on the biggest games of the season against Juventus, Inter Milan and that historic night away to Shakhtar Donetsk, when Atalanta qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League despite having no points at the group stage’s halfway mark.

Transfer interest in Gosens should be high, though prospective buyers are doubtful of Atalanta players’ ability to replicate the same high-performance levels outside of Gian Piero Gasperini’s unique system. For now, Gosens is committed— he extended his contract until 2024 in January.

His ambition remains to play for Schalke, the team he supports, at some point in the future.

Luis Alberto (Lazio)

Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz is the Spanish player repeatedly linked with a move from Serie A to one of the giants of La Liga. How Alberto doesn’t attract the same attention remains a mystery. Capped just once by Spain, the 27-year-old is back to his best this season and deserves a share of Ciro Immobile’s goal bonuses. Almost half of his 10 assists have been for the league’s top scorer and the connection between them is one of Lazio’s principal strengths.

Alberto’s scoring contribution of 0.52 per 90 minutes (14 goal plus assists in 25 appearances) is the highest among Serie A midfielders. He is the perfect playmaker for Lazio’s counter-attacking style and those defence-splitting first-time passes after a team-mate has won the ball figure in every centre-back’s nightmares. Nobody in Serie A makes more “deep progressions” (defined as passes, dribbles and carries into the final third) than Alberto, who goes down as one of the best bargains of recent years. Lazio paid just £3.5 million in 2016 to lure the Andalusian away from Liverpool (for whom he never started a Premier League game).

Honourable mentions go to Juventus’ Rodrigo Bentancur and Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini, the Italian player with the best vision in the league.

Sofyan Amrabat (Hellas Verona)

The blossoming Mario Pasalic misses out here because we already have our full complement of Atalanta players (sorry for the spoiler). Stefano Sensi would likely have been my pick had he not missed so many games through injury at Inter. Radja Nainggolan’s renaissance with Cagliari and that November performance against Fiorentina (a goal and a hat-trick of assists) left me conflicted, too. But Amrabat has been the revelation of Serie A’s season.

He could barely get off the bench at Club Brugge last season, arriving from Belgium to very little fanfare for £3.1 million. Within six months, a queue was forming to sign him.

Verona had a deal with Napoli but Amrabat instead chose Fiorentina, whom he will join next season for £17.5 million.

The Dutch-born Moroccan has dominated in midfield and is the face of coach Juric’s aggressive, pressing style. Excellent in transition, Amrabat drives his team forward. The 23-year-old is a decent dribbler too, making the prospect of seeing him line up with Gaetano Castrovilli next term a particularly tantalising one. 

Josip Ilicic (Atalanta)

One of the silver-linings the current lockdown provides is the chance to re-watch Ilicic this season. You should all go and do it once you’ve finished reading this article.

Until then, trust me when I say his YouTube supercut stands up to anything produced by your typical Ballon d’Or contenders.

Back-heeled goals. Curlers from outside the area. Top-corner volleys on his wrong foot. Feints sending the goalkeeper and three defenders the other way. Lobbing the keeper from just inside the opposition half. Braces in back-to-back 5-0 wins against Milan and Parma. A hat-trick in a 7-0 demolition of Torino. The four he scored in Atalanta’s Champions League last-16 second leg win in Valencia.

The Slovenian has been involved in more goals than any player in Serie A in 2020. More than Cristiano Ronaldo. More than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His scoring contribution (goals and assists) is a league-high 1.15 per 90 minutes. He averages more shots and key passes (7.43 per game) than anyone else in Italy.

Hand Ilicic the Player of the Year award and put him on the front cover of FIFA 2021 already.

Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta)

The man known as Papu brought the “Floss” dance to football and made a platinum-selling record, so when it comes to popular culture, nobody on this list comes close.

Not even Ronaldo.

Aside from being my favourite person and player in Serie A, the 32-year-old Argentine gets in on merit with 10 assists and a football IQ that’s off the charts. Papu can find the top corner from 25 yards, as he did against Parma, or slalom through defences and nutmeg full-backs, as he did for the goal he scored against Milan, when the former Catania playmaker let go of a shot that risked decapitating goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

What really stands out about Papu, though, is his talent for teleportation. You think he’s playing left-wing when actually he’s in the No 10 role. Make the necessary adjustments and next thing you know he’s pulling the strings from deep in midfield. Nobody knows who should pick him up and there’s true genius in his observation that the referee’s always in space, so follow him and you will be, too.

Papu’s compatriots Lautaro Martinez (Inter) and Paulo Dybala (Juventus) provided fierce competition for this spot. As the face of a team that keeps punching above its weight and exciting fans in Italy and in Europe, renouncing Papu simply wasn’t an option though. He is football.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)

Remember that night in November when Juventus were drawing 0-0 with Milan and Maurizio Sarri decided to take off Ronaldo 10 minutes into the second half? The 35-year-old memorably walked straight down the tunnel, and had showered, changed and left before his team-mates returned to the dressing room to celebrate a 1-0 win secured by a gorgeous goal from his replacement Dybala.

That all feels like an awful long time ago now, the tension a thing of the past.

No doubt he had heard people wondering whether his body was breaking down. When Ronaldo came back from the international break that immediately followed that Milan game, he did not stop scoring. Ronaldo scored in each of his next 11 league appearances, matching a record set by Gabriel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella. For a team with the league’s fourth-most prolific attack and one that has rarely blown opponents away, his ratio of 21 goals in 22 league games has often been the difference between Juventus drawing and edging a win.

Sarri is as dependent on him as he was on Eden Hazard at Chelsea. Ronaldo, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, has been involved in 48 per cent of Juventus’ goals this season. Although a third of his goals have been penalties and a number of others were tap-ins, his towering header away to Sampdoria and the stunning solo goal he scored in Verona served as reminders that reports of his decline following Milan were greatly exaggerated.

Ciro Immobile (Lazio)

No debate here. From a goals-to-games point of view, Immobile’s 27 goals in 26 league games make him the most prolific striker in Serie A since Antonio Valentin Angelillo’s 33-goal season for Inter in 1958-59. If he scores another 10 from Lazio’s remaining 12 fixtures, the Italy international will set a new single-season scoring record for the division. The six-goal cushion Immobile enjoys over Ronaldo makes him comfortably the favourite to win another Capocannoniere title.

It would be the third of the 30-year-old’s career, putting him on the same total as Giuseppe Meazza, Michel Platini, Beppe Signori and Gigi Riva. Only Gunnar Nordahl, with five in the 1950s, has more.


Predecessor Pippo Inzaghi says Immobile has been Serie A’s best forward for years and, although 10 of his goals have come from the spot this season, Immobile has won three of those penalties himself. Punishing teams from 12 yards is a skill, too, and in that regard, he is currently only one short of matching the record (11) Roberto Baggio established in 1998.

Immobile still needs to convince wider audiences he is an elite striker after flopping at Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla. He’ll get the opportunity to set them straight at the Euros and in next season’s Champions League.

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Josip Ilicic, the Prince of Slovenia, is Serie A’s Player of the Year



It’s late July, almost the end of pre-season, and Atalanta’s players are helping to pack up the equipment from a training session in Zingonia. The team’s midfield dynamos Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler grab one of the chairs from the sidelines. It’s hardly a two-man job but Josip Ilicic is sitting in it as if he were on a throne. “I’m the Prince of Slovenia, the Prince of Slovenia,” he jokes as his footmen lift him into the back of a truck. “We do all the hard work,” De Roon quipped on Instagram, his resentment feigned.

Nine months later, the Dutchman and his team-mates still have no problem waiting hand and foot on Ilicic. After all, if anyone deserves the royal treatment in Serie A this season, it’s him.

You have to bow to his majesty. When the 32-year-old audaciously chipped Salvatore Sirigu from just inside Torino’s half in January, Papu Gomez got to his knees and shined his left boot in appreciation. In Valencia, where Ilicic became the first Serie A player to score a four-goal poker in the Champions League since Andriy Shevchenko, Papu was at it again, gate-crashing his post-match interview so he could plant a big kiss on his cheek.

Coronating him The Athletic’s Serie A Player of the Year won’t come as too big a surprise to anyone at Atalanta. “Josip is playing the best football in Italy,” De Roon told Le Cronache di Spogliatoio. “He’s among the best in the world. I don’t want to make a comparison with (Cristiano) Ronaldo but he is at a very high level.”

To give you an impression of how high, consider the following: over the last two years, only Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have scored more hat-tricks in Europe’s top five leagues than Ilicic, who is neither a striker, nor a player for a big club like Barcelona or Manchester City. In fact, the Slovenian might not be playing at all had he succumbed to the life-threatening illness he contracted before the start of last season.

One of the hardest hitting reports about the tragedy wrought by the coronavirus came at the end of March when a crew from Sky News managed to film within the Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo. It’s a place Ilicic has seen from the inside, too. He was admitted as a patient here at the end of July 2018.

The former Palermo and Fiorentina playmaker had been suffering from a fever for a while and as the days passed, rather than improve, his condition deteriorated. “He had a neck like a melon,” Atalanta’s coach Gian Piero Gasperini recalled to La Gazzetta dello Sport. While his team-mates were away in Bosnia, the country where Ilicic was born, hammering Sarajevo 8-0 in the Europa League preliminaries, Ilicic underwent a series of tests to establish what the problem was. The results revealed a bacterial infection of the lymph nodes.

“The infection frightened us all,” Gasperini said, and it left Ilicic fearing for his life. “Some people who had the same problem ended up in a coma,” he explained to Il Corriere dello Sport. The sudden death of his former Fiorentina team-mate Davide Astori, who passed away in the team hotel before a game in Udine in 2018, understandably made a profound impression on Ilicic. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “When I got sick, I feared something similar could happen to me. I thought to myself, ‘What if I don’t wake up tomorrow? How will I deal with not being able to see my family?’.”

Afraid to go to bed, he didn’t think about football, nor did he watch games on TV. His focus narrowed. “I had one thing fixed in my mind: staying alive and being with my family. There was a point where just being able to walk and run like a normal person again would have been enough for me.”

Ilicic’s anxiety eased as a course of antibiotics finally took effect. The swelling of his neck reduced and the infection gradually dissipated. He is acutely aware of how lucky he got. “In my case, the infection was limited to my neck. It can spread throughout the body and has done in other patients. If I think about them…”

Emerging from hospital a changed man, Ilicic no longer sweats the small stuff. “In the past, I used to get angry about the silliest things — now I’ve learned to appreciate the good things in life.” For Ilicic, that means family. The four match-balls he’s brought home since his recovery are for his two kids to play with in the back garden. It’s tempting to suggest something clicked on the pitch too as one of the most mercurial talents of the last decade in Serie A finally stopped blowing hot and cold.

Delio Rossi had a reconnaissance mission for his son, Dario. He sent him to Slovenia to watch Palermo’s next opponents in the Europa League, the winners of Maribor and Hibernian, and as Rossi flew back to Sicily in July 2010, he couldn’t wait for the debriefing. Dario had been blown away by a no-name 22-year-old, some kid called Ilicic who’d scored twice in an emphatic 3-0 win.

An agent from Slovenia had flagged him up to Palermo’s sporting director Walter Sabatini — the guy who brought Alisson, Javier Pastore, Erik Lamela and Marquinhos to Europe — but Dario’s enthusiasm really captured his imagination. Sabatini watched the game back himself and called Palermo’s combustible owner, Maurizio Zamparini. “I told him we need to sign him right away,” Sabatini recalled.

As it turned out, Maribor had only just signed him themselves from relegated Interblock Ljubljana. Ilicic was staring another stint in the second division in the face when Zlatko Zahovic’s number flashed up on his phone. For an Argentine, it would be a bit like Maradona calling. Zahovic is renowned as Slovenia’s greatest ever player, even if his tirade after the 2002 World Cup — “You’re a prick of a coach and you were a prick of a player,” he told Srecko Katanec, “I could buy you, your house and your family” — is as famous as his presence on the Valencia squad that reached the Champions League final in 2001, not to mention the four league titles he won with Porto and Benfica in Portugal.

Phoning Ilicic in his new role as Maribor’s sporting director, Zahovic didn’t want to see him fade back into the wilderness. No doubt he’d heard the stories about Ilicic having an unsuccessful trial with a Moldovan side and how close he’d come to quitting the game altogether. It would have been a loss to football. Zahovic persuaded him to give it one more crack. He organised the transfer from Interblock for €80,000 and all of sudden, Ilicic found himself back in the game.

He didn’t last long at Maribor, though. A handful of appearances and that was it. Not because he wasn’t very good. The problem was Ilicic was too good. His fifth and final game came against Palermo and he didn’t disappoint, backing up the show he put on against Hibs with another goal. Sabatini and Rossi leaned on Zamparini some more and Zahovic’s 80 grand turned into €2.3 million in the blink of an eye. It was a bargain for Palermo too who, after narrowly missing out on the Champions League the year before and cashing in on Edinson Cavani, would reach the Coppa Italia final for the first time since 1979 with Ilicic and Pastore weaving their magic.

Dawn broke in Arenzano and Gasperini remembers being desperate. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “All our transfer targets were slipping away.” It was the off-season of 2017. Atalanta had just finished fourth back when fourth wasn’t enough to qualify for the Champions League and Gasperini wanted to go again. “We needed a touch of imagination,” he thought. Ilicic was practically off the board, his name all but scrubbed out. Sampdoria had wrapped up a deal with Fiorentina and he was heading to Genoa. But Gasperini hadn’t given up hope.

He had coached Ilicic at Palermo and wondered if the prospect of a reunion might be enough to get him to change his mind. “I decided to call (Giovanni) Sartori (Atalanta’s sporting director). I told him, ‘Look, Ilicic is on the verge of signing for Samp. The medical’s been booked. Are you able to speak to him?'” When Ilicic heard Gasperini was interested, the Slovenian turned as quickly as he turns defenders. “He lit up and said, ‘Mister, if you want, I won’t go to Samp. I’ll choose you.'” His decision did not go down well with Samp. They had watched Gasp torment them for years in the Derby della Lanterna. Even after leaving as manager of Genoa, he couldn’t help but get one over their city rivals.

From a neutral viewpoint, switching Florence for Bergamo felt like another sideways move in Ilicic’s career path. The big boys weren’t tempted to take a punt even for fee (€5.75 million) that, for them, hardly constituted a risk. He was on the cusp of turning 30 and perhaps the prevailing sense was if he hadn’t already realised his potential, he never would in Italy. Delio Rossi said: “We’re talking about a pure talent but he’s a very lazy player who, in his head, doesn’t think he has to train a lot to play well on a Sunday.” After Fiorentina lost to Milan a few months before Ilicic left the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Paulo Sousa said: “I take players performing at anything below their best as a personal defeat. And if Ilicic isn’t able to do what he did last year, it’s because he’s let himself go mentally. I’m guilty.”

A world-beater one day, anonymous the next. Ilicic has long disputed the notion his seasons were as up and down as the Tuscan countryside. “This reputation for inconsistency started in Florence where, by the way, I was top scorer for three years. And if I was inconsistent, when I’m a 10 or a midfielder, not a 20-goal striker, what’s everybody else!? At Fiorentina, I hit the woodwork seven times in seven games. Imagine if the ball had always gone in. You just need a bit of luck.” And the right coach.

As we discussed after that unforgettable night in Valencia, Gasperini’s man-management — pretending not to hear Ilicic when he asks to be taken off or making him think he will when in fact he won’t — is one of the reasons behind the belated blossoming of a unique talent.

“I’m really privileged to get to work with him,” Slovenia international Jure Balkovec tells The Athletic. “I don’t know how to describe it because every training session is a joy.”

As a left-back, Balkovec knows the conundrum every defender faces when Ilicic is cutting in from the right-hand side. “If you give him a little bit of space, even just for a second, when it’s one-on-one, even if you know he’s left-footed… as with Arjen Robben, when everyone used to say show him onto his other foot and he always went with his left and found the space to shoot, it’s the same with him. Even if you know he’s left-footed, he’ll somehow find a way to open up space for his left foot.”

His skill as a dribbler is unusual for someone of his size. Ilicic is 6ft 3in and, as De Roon once commented: “Messi is small and quick. (Josip) can change direction like him but he stands at 190cm.”

At every international get-together, Balkovec tries to soak up what he can from Ilicic. He takes free-kicks for Empoli whenever there is a foul on the right-hand side and his desire for self-improvement has led him to stay back after training with Slovenia to practice with Ilicic. “I remember one time, out of six, he scored five goals. Even (Jan) Oblak couldn’t save them. I scored two or three and Josip joked, ‘Maybe I’ll let you take one in the game’.”

For Balkovec, Ilicic has the best technique of any Slovenian player ever. “I remember Zlatko (Zahovic),” he says. “I was still very young but little things, I remember. Maybe, from this point of view, it’s difficult to tell. Still, Zlatko managed to score a lot more goals and this is an advantage. But maybe from the point of view of flair and skill, for me, Ilicic is better.”

Lobbing a keeper from 50 yards, as Ilicic did against Torino, ordinarily makes the goal of the season list. But Ilicic wasn’t all that impressed by it. “They were badly-positioned,” he observed. “I kicked it and that was it. It was more luck than skill.”

As goals go, he continues to judge everything by the Maradona-esque solo effort he scored against Samp in his Palermo days, the one where he dribbled from inside his own half, slaloming past four defenders and slotting home.

His standards are impeccably high but when a highlights reel of Ilicic’s career is cut, there will be plenty of moments from this season. The braces, the hat-tricks, the poker. The back-heeled goals, the volleys on his “weaker” foot and my personal favourite the Jedi-like feint that sent Lecce’s goalkeeper and three other opponents the wrong way in another game in which Atalanta scored seven.

Ilicic has scored and assisted 20 times in 19 starts this season. He has dominated. Ilicic isn’t just the Prince of Slovenia — he is the undisputed King of Serie A.

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