Alberto De Rossi went into his 16th season in charge of the Primavera this year; he was confident the team could start off with a solid footing. Every piece of the Primavera squad had been put into place early in the summer, including the 6 million euro signing William Bianda from Lens. Other names, like hitman striker Zan Celar, had a year to get their foot under the table and build some chemistry within the squad.
The reality after 13 league rounds? Mixed results.
There’s a blistering attack mixed in with a leaky backline, and a very creative couple of midfielders in between. A lot of people’s interest hovers around how Bianda is doing, given that his fee could rise to 11 million once bonuses kick in on his transfer from Lens.
But the truth is Bianda doesn’t look like he belongs at Primavera level, in both the best and worst sense. There’s nothing insightful to write about a player who often looks out of sync with the rest of his team, even if a lot of that naturally boils down to a teenager adapting within a foreign country.
Then there are the unfortunate injury caveats: both first and second-choice keepers Stefano Greco and Matteo Cardinali have missed games through injury. Greco’s return from a two-and-a-half month layoff since the autumn has coincided less goals conceeded and a return to winning ways this winter. The injuries even include Bianda, who picked up two injuries during games and a separate third injury in training that has kept him out since mid-November.
The most disruptive injury was to right-back Devid Bouah, who was in unbelievable form before the ACL curse struck in November. Added to that, everyone saw the headlines around left-back Riccardo Calafiori’s leg-shattering injury in the dying minutes of a UEFA Youth League game against Plzen in October.
It’s near redundant to qualify the Primavera players in senior football terms, because the time and space they get on the ball at U-19 level is so much greater.
But, for many of these names, this season forcefully represents the last at Primavera level in one way or another now that Roma are pursuing a B-team to cover the U-23 level and compete in Serie C (provisionally) from next season.
Ironically that age-restriction doesn’t apply to a couple of the brightest talents we highlight in this post, as we look at five of the best in Roma’s Primavera 18/19 campaign so far.
Star Man: Alessio Riccardi (7 goals and 6 assists for Roma, 3 goals for Italy U-19s)
Riccardi coming out as the star performer of this Roma side is no surprise to some, though the competition for leading man is a lot closer than you might think.
Riccardi stands out because Roma’s attack can - at times - look short of ideas against better defensive sides without him, but most of all because the Italian prodigy needs little-to-no-time to shift the ball on his right foot and make something happen.
That’s a quality that will serve him well at any level, and Il Tempo reports that the club are responding to Riccardi’s talent by warming up the same 800k-per-year senior contract that Luca Pellegrini received before Roma’s #3 was promoted to the senior squad.
The club don’t just want to extend Riccardi’s stay at youth level for another 3 years; they want the Roman signed on for the full five. All of this at just 17 years of age.
Riccardi tries to unlock games with a inordinate amount of shots outside of the area, which can be a gift and a curse to his side. You cannot keep passing up opportunities to send teammates through on goal for egotistical long-range shots. You’d better be Cristiano Ronaldo to get away with that at pro level.
But then there are goals, and there are goals.
When Riccardi hits the kind of goals like the opener against CSKA Moscow below, it’s hard to talk the kid out of trying his luck some more.
To make things even more interesting, Riccardi is pretty handy on his left foot too. Check out his opening goal away to Viktoria Plzen for that much.
If there is one massive area of improvement for Riccardi to make (besides decision making in the final third) it’s his concentration in front of goal.
The Roman has been guilty of wide open misses in pre-season training and friendly games with the Roma senior team, followed up by a wide open miss against Chievo Primavera at home in the league. He also blasted a header over the bar, six yards out from goal deep at the end of the Primavera league game away to Genoa. That game ended in a 3-3 draw costing vital points in a “dark November” league spell for his side.
Assist Man: Salvatore Pezzella (5 goals, 8 assists)
Just one look at Pezzella and you’d think Pjanic’s DNA was cloned before he left for Juventus - a fact not lost on Nainggolan’s Instagram last year.
The midfield creator is relentlessly looking for an opening to send teammates through on goal in the Primavera side, and it helps that Pezzella’s also very good for set-piece deliveries.
“I don’t like the comparisons between me and Pjanic looks-wise,” Pezzella told Roma TV, “but I like him as a player. Many people tell me I take after his game aesthetically.”
Beyond the Pjanic-junior tag, look at performances like the one against Milan Primavera - where Pezzella came up with 3 assists in a 7-1 win - to see how enjoyable this Roman creator is to watch.
(Pezzella is wearing the #6 in the video below, scoring the first goal at the penalty spot).
He’s got close competition in midfield, in the form of Andrea Marcucci. Both players have alternated the #6 shirt and the armband on occasion. Marcucci is no slouch in midfield, often getting into the box and banging in the goals from deep.
Both lads can play mediano, either subbing for or playing alongside one another, in De Rossi’s newly revamped 4-2-3-1 formation. But I give the vote to Pezzella as best deep lying midfielder. He has the potential to influence the entire proceeding of a match.
Hit Man: Zan Celar (16 goals, 1 assist)
It’s almost unfair to mention Celar as only third in line in this post, but the bomber comes alive in and around the box... and barely anywhere else on the pitch. His main quality is his pure hunger to beat his opponent in the box.
The striker has exploded onto the scene as the league’s second-top scorer behind the 19 league goals of Torino’s striker Vincenzo Millico (for perspective - Celar and Millico have each scored over double the tally of their nearest competitors in the Primavera top scorer rankings).
Truthfully, Celar has also padded his numbers with a fair few goals from the penalty spot. But the way he buries penalties is testament to another one of Celar’s visible assets: his mental strength.
The Slovenian U-19 striker was the driving force behind Roma’s 6 consecutive wins after the first 7 league rounds; wins that had the team flying high in the league before November’s collective crash in form.
Celar buried consecutive hat-tricks against the current league leaders Atalanta, followed by burying Inter 4-2 at the beggining of November. In that game, Celar was very much the author of all Inter’s pain.
Celar has skipped all the UEFA Youth League games, as he’s busy being called up to the Champions League senior squad instead. EDF prefers Celar get an up-close look at the big boys playing from the sideline in European mid-week fixtures.
On the flipside, he also missed a couple of league games early in the season by getting himself sent off for dissent against Sassuolo in the opening round. Other than the one moment of poor discipline, it’s hard to peg any glaring flaws in Celar’s makeup.
He’s a poacher, and has some way to go if he’s going to be the all-round striker that EDF prefers in his fluid front three. But trying to mould Celar into that kind of player would risk robbing him of the pure passion for both pummelling goals and defenders.
I almost don’t want him to change. I really like guys like Celar who don’t shy away from doing whatever it takes to be a constant thorn in a defender’s side. I wouldn’t want to see this kid worrying about fancy target-man tactics outside of the area. Not if it’s going to cloud his ruthless aggression inside the box.
Celar’s competition for the striker spot in the side is Flavio Bucri, a Roman-born striker with a couple of league goals to his name so far. But Bucri lacks the physique of Celar.
One To Watch: Gianmarco Cangiano (6 goals and 5 assists for Roma, 1 goal for Italy U-18)
The left wide forward is a template player for DiFra’s ideal tactics: Cangiano is ruthless cutting from the left side and firing on goal with his right foot.
Off the ball, Cangiano doesn’t hesitate to attack the goal, and will hone in on the near or far post to get on the end of crosses into the box when needed. He’s buried a few goals this way.
The Napoli-born kid has the kind of game on the ball to make defenders back off him... and regret their decision to do so just seconds later. But he can also skip right past anyone who tries to close him down, too. Cangiano is basically unplayable one-on-one at this level, when he’s on top form.
His best form doesn’t come every week, and sometimes it doesn’t even last a match half. For a kid who looks like he looks like he runs his temper on the limit, Cangiano’s performances have been very hot and cold (even by what little I’ve seen and understood at Primavera level about what consistency looks like).
Cangiano’s competition in the squad comes from Ludovico d’Orazio, who’s a wide forward not shy of goals himself (4 goals and 3 assists).
The club isn’t short of right-footed left-side forwards right now. Far from it, in fact. But Cangiano’s form has been eye-opening enough that the 17-year old is one of two Roma Primavera players (along with left-back Francesco Semeraro) to be called up to both this season’s Italy U-18 international games so far.
Cangiano obliged that call-up by breaking his scoring duck for the Azzurini.
One to Watch: Devid Bouah (6 goals and 2 assists)
We saw Bouah turn out for the Roma senior team in the pre-season friendly against Avellino. Bouah himself is Roman-born and raised. The local lad has been sidelined since a knee ligament tear mid-game in a November loss to Fiorentina.
It was a real shame as Bouah was on some scary form; he racked up 6 goals and 2 assists from full back. The Roman’s physique is such that he could keep conquering youth level from any position on the pitch he pleases. Back in November (before the injury) his agent was unsurprisingly talking up a contract extension for the 17-year old.
That contract finally became a reality this month (he will be a Roma youth player until 2021) and we’ll hope the knee recovers in good order, with Bouah slated for a late-April return to action at earliest. Maybe he can have a great end to the playoffs, like Capradossi’s title-winning return from torn ligaments just two years ago.
Bouah also turned out for both Italy U-19 international friendlies this season, before injury sidelined him. He’s got the freight-train quality of Cafu’s runs down the right flank, mixed with the wizardry of Maicon cutting inside on the ball.
I just compared Bouah to two of Roma’s greatest right backs this side of the millennium, and that’s as hype as I’m willing to get for now.
Domestically, there are 2 more rounds to go before Roma start playing the reverse fixtures in the second half of their league season.
- Next Primavera 1 league fixture: Saturday 12th December. This weekend Roma travel to Juventus.
- Next Primavera Cup fixture: Tuesday 22nd January. A difficult quarter-final draw awaits on a trip to Atalanta.
- Next UEFA Youth League fixture: Wednesday 20th February against Danish side FC Midtjylland. Roma didn’t directly qualify from the group stages, but win this tie and they’ll be through to the UEFA Youth League round of 16.