As is traditional, Serie B kicks off this weekend amidst a cloud of controversy and uncertainty this weekend. Avellino, Bari and Cesena have been forced to re-start from Serie D following a series of financial troubles and irregularities and the league management has chosen not to fill the void left by their departure. The uncertainty on the playing side, however, has been diminished by the popular decision to bring forward the Italian transfer window to the start of the season, thus allowing clubs to effectively close their squads before proceedings get underway.
In light of this, there is no better time to look at the players that will hope to shine this season in Serie B season. As with every year, each of the 19 squads are filled with an array of lower league journeymen, former Serie A heavyweights, untested imports, youth academy graduates and young players brought in on loan from Serie A sides.
As the focus here will be on players in the younger age categories, many of the players discussed will be players loaned from leading Serie A clubs. This shouldn’t be surprising, as many of the stars that have lit up Italian football in the past decade have enjoyed similar loan spells in the second tier, including Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Simone Verde, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
There will, of course, be other young players who come through the youth systems or are otherwise introduced to Italian football through Serie B as has been the case with players such as Andrea Pirlo, Marco Verratti and Jorginho. Three examples of likely candidates to make this journey are Nicola “the next Andy Selva” Nanni (Crotone), Giulio Maggiore (Spezia) and Pepín (Pescara). However, in this article we have tipped the following prospects to have their star shine brightest this season:
Sandro Tonali (Brescia)
As Ariel Ortega, Bojan Krkic and Gigi Donnarumma will testify to, it can be hard to live up to expectations when you’re constantly being compared to a living legend. From the youth teams onwards, each of your matches is analysed from the prism of how your mentor (real or otherwise) dealt with similar situations when he was your age and how their development through the ranks compared to your own. Often, these child prodigies will distance themselves from such comparisons and argue that it is hardly fair for them to be measured against the likes of Maradona, Messi and Buffon when their teammates are merely being compared against one another.
For Sandro Tonali, an 18-year-old midfielder from the town of Lodi, 25 kilometres from Milan, such comparisons do not seem a burden. Upon being asked who he models his game on shortly after being thrown into the first team of the Rondinelle during the course of last season, his answer was unequivocal: “Pirlo, with a bit of Gattuso thrown in”. Indeed, the nonchalance of his answer was itself reminiscent of the former Milan and Juventus playmaker, but the comparisons don’t stop there. A player that Italian youth coaches around the country have known about for years, who glides – somewhat lazily – across midfield as he sweeps his dark shoulder-length hair from his eyes; star of the recent European Under-19 Championships for Italy and a permanent fixture in Brescia’s midfield. The greatest difference between Tonali and the World Cup winner’s careers so far perhaps lies in the fact that the Brescia number four is beginning his career as a deep-lying regista, undeniably conditioned by Pirlo’s own trailblazing conversion to the role.
Reportedly, the Rondinelle have already knocked back several big money bids for the youngster over the summer in the hope that he can help guide them to Serie A and presumably attract a bigger bid thereafter. However, Tonali arguably faces a greater set of challenges this year than last. He must bear the responsibility of providing the creative spark from the middle of the park and handle the pressure that will naturally come as a result of his stellar performances with the Azzurini. This isn’t a make-or-break year for him by any means, but if he can build in the promise he showed last season, we’ll be much closer to seeing him set pitches alight in Serie A.
You may also appreciate: Luca Clemenza (Padova, on loan from Juventus)
Another midfield playmaker, albeit one who plays as a more traditional trequartista. He may not start for the Biancoscudati in the initial weeks of the season, but Padova will be hoping the 21-year-old can have at least 10% of the impact that Alessandro Del Piero had all those years ago.
Han Kwang-Son (Perugia, on loan from Cagliari)
Another youngster who exploded onto the Serie B scene last season with Perugia, Han Kwang-Son finds himself back at the club for a second loan spell after having been the subject a tug-of-war with Cagliari over the summer. The North Korean is famously looked after by an entourage that leaves him very little liberty to express himself off the pitch, but there are no similar concerns once the whistle blows. A quick, athletic and two-footed player, Han is also deceptively strong and uses his body to protect and win the ball in a way that belies his 19 years.
Having scored 7 goals in 17 league games in the first half of last season, he re-joined his parent club in January in the hope that he could have a similar impact on Serie A. After failing to score in his first three starts for the Sardinian club, an injury to his ankle against Torino ruled him out for a couple of weeks, and he was re-introduced sparingly as Cagliari spent the final weeks of the season battling relegation.
Given his proven goalscoring record at this level (in addition to his seven goals, he also managed three assists last season), Han is the surest prospect in this list. However, it remains to be seen how he will link up with Federico Melchiorri following the departures of Alberto Cerri (who will be playing his football at Cagliari) and Samuel Di Carmine (Verona), who he combined with so well last season.
You may also appreciate: Claudio Spinelli (Crotone, on loan from Genoa)
Having signed the Argentine forward from Tigre in his homeland for north of £3 million, Genoa have chosen to farm out the 21 year old to Crotone to settle him into Italian football immediately. Spinelli scored 7 goals in 13 games (six of which from the bench, for a ratio of one goal every 0.92 minutes) on loan at San Martin in the Argentine Primera División in the first half of this year.
Michele Cerofolini (Cosenza, on loan from Fiorentina)
It’s not easy being a 19-year-old goalkeeper in Italy, particularly in Florence. Indeed, anywhere else, Cerofolini would be regarded as one of the most promising young players in the country. Last season, he starred for Fiorentina under-20s as they reached the final of the Italian Championship. He has six Italian Under-19 caps under his belt and was part of the squad that reached the final of this year’s European Under-19 Championships. And yet, by general consensus, he is only the third best goalkeeper in his age group.
Currently between the sticks of the Italian national team is 19-year-old Gigi Donnarumma. In addition, the man starting ahead of Cerofolini at the European Championships in Finland, 18-year-old Alessandro Plizzari, won the golden gloves at the tournament. To make matters worse for the Tuscan goalie, his parent club Fiorentina went out and bought a new first-choice goalkeeper this summer, Frenchman Alban Lafont, who is two weeks younger than Cerofolini.
This season, Cerofolini finds himself with the opportunity to stake his claim for a more privileged position within both his national and club hierarchy on loan at Cosenza. Sure, his confidence won’t be boosted any by the fact that he only arrived in Calabria after a move for their first choice, the aforementioned Plizzari from Milan, was publicly rejected. However, with his new club expected to be at the wrong end of the table this season, we should at least see him kept busy more than most goalkeepers this season.
You may also appreciate: Boris Radunovic (Cremonese, on loan from Atalanta)
Last season, the most promising goalkeeper in the division was arguably Josip Posavec of Palermo, who has found a new home at Hajduk Split this summer. This year, the mantle is likely to pass across the border to 22-year-old talent Boris Radunovic. The Serbian enjoyed some standout performances towards the end of last season on loan at Salernitana, and the keeper on loan from Atalanta will be looking to improve on that with a stronger side around him.
Gabriele Gori (Foggia, on loan from Fiorentina)
Part of a generation of Viola talent that includes Federico Chiesa, Riccardo Sottil and Martin Graiciar, which has been supplemented by new summer signings Tofol Montiel and Dusan Vlahovic, it is perhaps understandable that 19-year-old forward Gabriele Gori has been relocated on a temporary basis to secure game time.
As well as being a star of the Italian youth sides for a number of years, Gori was also named player of the tournament at this year’s prestigious Viareggio Youth Cup, where his four goals helped fire Fiorentina to the final.
Since arriving at Foggia, Gori has already contributed with a goal against Catania in the second round of the Coppa Italia. A penalty-box striker who earns his bread from instinctive finishing and clever positional play, the Florence-born forward may find that some adaptation is required if he is to secure his place in the starting line-up at the Puglian side, particularly given the competition posed by fellow loan signing Pietro Iemmello.
However, if given the chance by Gianluca Grassadonia, Gori will at least be able to count on the service of Cristian Galano, the dynamic winger signed from Bari this summer. Goals were rarely a problem for Foggia last season, and Gori will be hoping that Gianluca Grassadonia’s appointment as manager does not ebb the flow of chances reaching the penalty box.
You may also appreciate: Mirko Antenucci (Pescara, on loan from Roma)
Another side notable for their attacking football in recent years, Pescara have made it clear during pre-season that right-winger Mirko Antenucci will be a key part of their plans for the season. The 19-year-old will be well aware that if he delivers on his promise this year, there could be a pathway into the Roma first team next season under Di Francesco, with a slot on the wing potentially up for grabs.
Pierre Desire Zebli (Ascoli, on loan from Genk)
Thrown into the Perugia first-team aged just 16, Zebli made the defensive midfield position his own at the Grifoni for a season and a half before RKC Genk came calling in January 2017. His time in Belgium has so far been entirely uneventful and he has failed to make a single appearance during his 18 months at the club, prompting a return to Serie B in the hope that the Ivorian, now aged 20, will be able to get his career back on track.
During his time at Perugia, Zebli proved himself to be an astute tackler who is willing to drive forward in support of his teammates. A late arrival at the Bianconeri (he joined Ascoli at the beginning of August), Zebli missed the Coppa Italia loss to lowly Viterbese, their only competitive match so far, and the role that he will play in Vivarini’s midfield is so far unclear.
A successful year at the Stadio Del Duca could signal a turn of fortunes for the midfielder, who has expressed a desire to return to Italy on a permanent basis. Strong performances may lead Serie A clubs to sit up and take notice.
You may also appreciate: Riccardo Marchizza (Crotone, on loan from Sassuolo)
Sassuolo may have strengthened their defensive department this season with the arrival of Marlon from Barcelona, the loan signing of Mauricio Lemos and the return of Gian Marco Ferrari from Sampdoria, but the 20-year-old centre-back has already shown last season at Avellino that he is ready for senior football. Serie B is a path well travelled for many top Serie A defenders, including Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti and Daniele Rugani, and Marchizza could be the next stopper in line.
Liam Henderson (Verona)
A couple of years older than the other talents listed here, but surprisingly still only 22. Henderson’s problem before moving to Serie B was that none of his managers fully trusted him. In five senior seasons at Celtic, Neil Lennon noted signs of promise as he was coming through, but then Ronny Deila was quick to farm him out on loan and Brendan Rodgers only gave him the occasional appearance against weaker opposition. In Italy, he has had no such problem and has convinced World Cup winner and current manager Fabio Grosso to put his faith in him after just five months at the club.
The transition from Scottish football to Italian football came easily to Henderson and he quickly established himself in Bari’s midfield three. Immediately assigned to corner-kick duties, he won admirers instantly at the San Nicola, including many Serie A clubs such as Fiorentina and Sampdoria, both of which reportedly bid for the player before he opted for Hellas Verona. His decision to follow Grosso to Veneto appears to be a win-win choice for both sides. Henderson will continue starting every week for a big club that should challenge for the title this season, and Verona have tied down a tried-and-tested 22-year-old midfielder on a four-year deal, from which they may well expect a large transfer fee in future.
There could be some teething problems as Henderson joins an entirely new midfield alongside Samuel Gustafson and presumably Karim Laribi, but the presence of a target man in Samuel Di Carmine can only help the former Hibs loanee in his quest to improve his assists tally. Greater qualitative consistency should be the goal for Henderson this season, but the Verona support are unlikely to be let down by his hard work and attitude.
You may also appreciate: Harvey St Clair (Venezia)
The road travelled by Henderson is now being trodden by another Scotsman. Rather than risk sinking in the quick sand of the Chelsea youth academy, Scotland Under-21 international Harvey St Clair has made the decision to sink in La Serenissima instead. Despite a start in the early rounds of the Coppa Italia, the 19-year-old will be hard-pressed to string together regular appearances with the Lagunari and it may be some time before we see what plans Stefano Vecchi has for the left winger.