ROME (Reuters) - Five months ago, AS Roma were singled out by Italy coach Roberto Mancini for not giving enough playing time to young Italian players such as Nicolo Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante.
On Tuesday, Mancini was among the crowd at the Stadio Olimpico as all three played in Roma’s 2-1 Champions League win over Porto and may have left feeling far more optimistic about the national team’s future.
In all, Roma fielded seven Italians in their starting line-up for the last 16 match, the first team to do so in the Champions League since Juventus against FC Copenhagen in 2013.
The highlight was undoubtedly provided by 19-year-old Zaniolo who scored both Roma goals, showing once again why he is one of the most exciting young players Italy has produced for several years.
The midfielder, signed by Roma in the close season from Inter Milan where he did not play a senior match, was included by Mancini in Italy’s squad last September, before he had even made his Serie A debut.
“A good player like him has to play,” said Mancini at the time, saying he based his decision on Zaniolo’s performances for Italy’s under-19 team. “In the past, players of his age were already playing for big clubs and that ought to be the case today. It happens abroad.”
Shortly afterwards, Zaniolo was thrown in at the deep end as Roma gave him his debut in a Champions League match at Real Madrid and he has not looked back.
His first Serie A goal, against Sassuolo in December was a brilliant solo effort which showed all his potential. After being released down the touchline in the 59th minute, Zaniolo cut inside a defender who was left on the ground and chipped the ball cheekily over goalkeeper Andrea Consigli.
He also scored a remarkable improvised goal against Torino last month, managing to gather the rebound from his own attempt while on the ground in a crowded box before pivoting and firing a shot into the roof of the net.
Tuesday’s goals were his first in the Champions League, taking his tally to five in all competitions this season, and earned him praise from his captain Daniele De Rossi, a notoriously tough taskmaster.
“It’s another small milestone, perhaps not even a small one, that adds to what he is showing game after game and even training session after training session,” said the grizzled 35-year-old.
“He has an incredible natural physique for someone who is only 19 and also has great technical quality. In my opinion, as perhaps with everyone now, he is already a very good player – and can become a great one.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge