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The Long-Awaited Roma Debut of Elio Capradossi

Where next for the Italy U-21 defender?

Italy U21 v Pescara Calcio - Friendly Match Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

“Even on the bench you have to be very attentive to moments of the game and always be ready to take your chance,” Elio Capradossi laid down his state of mind in the press room. “I certainly have to look to make as few mistakes as possible.”

Capradossi was sat before the microphones and cameras in Puglia, explaining his return to Bari for the 2017/18 season. His second season in Biancorosso colours was meant to be the one where he finally moved to the heart of Bari’s shaky defence, away from all the appearances at right-back. Instead, it would end prematurely this past January, with Bari - at times - choosing to take 10,000 euro fines each game for fielding non-listed squad players instead of playing Capradossi. He’d entirely lost the faith of both Bari staff and management.

Roma decided they’d had enough, paying Bari 300,000 euros to terminate Capradossi’s loan and bring him back into the fold at Rome. No one anticipated how much of a sour turn Elio’s time in Bari would take, making his good Serie A outing against Cagliari this past weekend a further mystery.

2015-16: The Roma Debut That Never Came

The summer of 2015: Roma were fresh off two seasons of Rudi Garcia and needing something other than a Francesco Totti-led false 9 setup to take the club past Juventus. Walter Sabatini wasn’t looking to in-house youth to get the job done; he’d agreed to let Alessio Romagnoli fulfil his dream move to AC Milan to fund the wages of Roma’s new veteran striker Edin Dzeko.

“That summer me and the club spoke at length over many options,” Elio Capradossi later recalled in a Bari press conference. “And it was decided together that my best chance was to stay at Roma.” The young defender had earned enough of Rudi Garcia’s trust to sit on Roma’s bench during their early season 6-pointer match with Juventus.

That match saw new signing Edin Dzeko outmuscle Chiellini in the box for the winning goal, and help Allegri’s new Juve era slide into freefall. The usual talk after the match started up around Italian media: Could 2015-16 be the year for Roma? Elio Capradossi was counting on playing a part in it. Then the first major setback of Capradossi’s career came with an ACL tear, and he slid right back down the pecking order into the Primavera and even the Roma Allievi squad.

“Those were some very difficult months of my career,” Capradossi told Roma TV at the end of that season. Only one major positive came out of his rehab: he befriended Kevin Strootman while the pair were recovering from the same knee problems, and he hasn’t missed a beat in mentioning the Dutch midfielder as one of his closest friends and inspirations at the club ever since.

Spring 2016: Leading the Primavera to Glory

Back on his feet and fully recovered by April 2016, Elio was trusted with the Primavera captain’s armband for their league semi final against Inter. Frankly, his performance on the pitch at crucial moments left something to be desired - a theme that would repeated again in his later appearances at Bari.

Roma fell behind Inter until a Marco Tumminello brace turned the game on its head. Inter managed to equalize and force a 2-2 for extra time, where Capradossi and the team were caught asleep on the restart, immediately conceeding a goal through which Elio failed to close down his man. Roma were chasing parity through the whole extra time period, and actually pulled it off with a 3-3 scoreline forcing penalties.

In the shooutout, Capradossi put in a rather cool, Perotti-esque spotkick, watching his Roma side advance to the league final to face Juventus Primavera. There, he would do the same again in another penalty shootout - Capradossi taking a very cool walk-up to the ball before slotting it deep into the left side of the net, on the way to leading his team to the league title. “He’s always been a kid to keep his cool,” said Sandro Tovalieri, a former Rome youth team coach of Capradossi’s, to much later. “You’ve seen that in the penalties he scored in the semi-final and that final.”

By the summer of 2016, Capradossi had the perfect reset button for his career.

He could walk into the Pinzolo ritiro with the senior squad and feel like he had a reason to belong, but he knew his prospects under then-coach Luciano Spalletti, a man not known to trust youth over experience, were slim. He sat down with the club’s management that summer, with the very same slate of loan options in front of him as 12 months back. This time, he decided to leave on a dry loan to Bari rather than stay in Rome.

His first season further South went well enough, only he was largely shoved out wide to right-back to get pitch time. Still, 23 appearances in the first team was nothing to complain about and, had he ended his Bari adventure there, Capradossi would have left with the reputation of a promising youngster surviving a Pugliese climate of perennial disappointment choking the rest of the team.

The then-Bari coach Stefano Colantuono made a public resignation speech before the last game of the season, choosing to blame the unavailability of key players for Bari’s promotion bid falling apart the the last hurdle. At the time he wasn’t talking about Capradossi, but the same topic became a very real bone of contention for Bari’s management in Elio’s second season, coming back to bite Elio in the ass in a big way this past winter.

2017/2018 - Between Azzurini Light and Pugliese Obscurity

By Capradossi’s return to Bari last August, the picture in Puglia had changed significantly. There was a younger squad, led by young, unproven coach Fabio Grosso - yes, 2006 World Cup-winning Fabio Grosso - and Elio was immediately asked if he could become leadership material for Bari’s promotion charge, on his first press conference back with the club. After all, Capradossi was one of the calmest heads in the dressing room - but it turned out moving him to his preferred position at centre-back wouldn’t translate to serenity on the pitch.

Bari constantly tortured their fans with the prospect of marching to the top of table, while Capradossi similarly threatened to fulfill his long-awaited potential. But their shaky away form kept screwing it up. One such away match against Brescia saw the Biancorosso locked at 1-1 in the second half, when Capradossi came off the bench to score the winner - only it was for Brescia. A non-threatening cross into Bari’s box saw Capradossi go to ground and attempt a sliding clearance that ended up in the back of his own net. Bari lost that match and Capradossi didn’t look anything like the calm, composed defender he’s been talked up to be.

So why is Elio still in with a genuine shot at becoming a damn good Serie A defender? As always in the big-money world of football, the final reason why Capradossi fell out at Bari is probably the very same one that makes him a viable prospect for Roma to try out in their senior squad: his international call-ups to the Azzurini have never stopped coming. In the background to all his mixed fortunes domestically, Capradossi’s captaincy for the Italy U-20 side was followed by several call-ups to the U-21 Azzurini last winter.

It was a situation leaving Bari annoyed that Capradossi was unavailable to them at key moments. Not least of all, Capradossi had to count himself out of the bitter, regional derby with Pescara further up the road - a match for which Bari coach Fabio Grosso recently received death threats and dead roosters left on his front door by Pescara fans. Imagine dealing with that while watching a young Elio wish him best of luck as Capradossi packed his bags to join the U-21s at Coverciano.

The combination of early season poor form and unavailability locked him out of any trust at Puglia. By the time Elio was back, fit and available to Grosso, the coach had pushed the club to burn through money by fielding ineligible players in Capradossi’s place. They’d pay 10,000 euro fines a game for fielding Diakite in the backline, and the picture for Capradossi - and Monchi this past January - was stark and clear.

Among the match ratings you can find for Capradossi’s meagre 11 appearances in a Bari shirt this season, the repeated comments are of his struggle to cover for other defenders when the team is defending deep - a problem that won’t often come up in a Eusebio Di Francesco side, it has to be said. On the contrary, Capradossi has shone whenever he’s been asked to come out and close down his opponents aggressively, taking the ball off them and passing it forward to help his team back into possession. This quality perfectly suits Di Francesco’s ‘blocca squadra’ view of playing football.

Roma are a club that cannot often afford to break in youth unless they quickly gain themselves an international profile. For that reason among many, the Federico Vivianis of the world are out the door at SPAL while the Florenzis of the Italy squad had survived in Rome today. It isn’t just limited to Italian youth, as seen with Jonathan Silva’s signing this past January or Rick Karsdorp’s arrival last summer. These names all have the country call-ups to potentially command, and repay, notable transfer fees at any time.

Elio Capradossi is one of those names on the Italy U-21 scene, and his strengths work well for Roma’s current setup. Time is a rare commodity in a football world where money isn’t, and Elio will be feeling it’s about high time for him to capitalise on last weekend’s debut for more in Giallorossi colours.