ROME: Manuel Locatelli (front) celebrates with Lorenzo Insigne after he scored Italy’s first goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group A match vs Switzerland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on June 16, 2021. — AFP

ROME: Italy midfielder Manuel Locatelli started Euro 2020 as a replacement for injured Marco Verratti but the once-promising youngster who fell out of favor with former club AC Milan has finally come of age. The 23-year-old’s impressive brace in a 3-0 win over Switzerland midweek helped the Azzurri book their last-16 berth with a game to spare.

It gives coach Roberto Mancini a welcome selection headache with Verratti targeting a return from a knee injury for the final Group A game against Wales today. The coach could be reluctant to make adjustments to a well-tuned engine that has scored six goals in two games and conceded none.

For Sassuolo’s Locatelli the postponed tournament has proven to be a welcome delay. “Locatelli has grown a lot,” said Mancini, who called up the player for the first time last September. “We think he’s a great player and can improve. He’s a playmaker, he’s physical, has technical qualities, he has everything.”

“For a midfielder two goals are never a given,” added the coach after Wednesday’s game in Rome. Those goals have catapulted Locatelli back into the limelight, attracting interest from Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri who reportedly wants the 40-million-euro ($47 million) rated player for his new midfield.

Known as ‘Loca’, the player from Lake Como in northern Italy, started his career in Atalanta’s academy, among a crop of talented youngsters who would later form the backbone of Gian Piero Gasperini’s successful side. Locatelli left Bergamo for AC Milan aged 11, progressing through the youth categories to sign a professional contract in 2015, making his first-team debut around the same time as goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

‘Expectations sky high’

Expectations soared after he scored the winner against Juventus in October 2016. But after three years and just one more goal, Milan lost faith in their protege and eventually sold him to Sassuolo for 14 million euros.

“Expectations were sky-high, I wasn’t even ready,” recalled Locatelli. “It was devastating when I learned that I was no longer part of the project, no longer important to the team. But in the end this helped me. I needed to change too.”

His dreams of emulating Andrea Pirlo would now be played out away from the bright lights of the San Siro in Emilia-Romagna where he flourished under Roberto De Zerbi. “De Zerbi changed my life, thanks to him I got rid of the unfinished label.”

Legendary Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi estimates “it took Locatelli two years to recover his modesty after the good goal against Juve on his debut in Milan”. In three seasons with Sassuolo he has scored seven goals in 99 games, and was a vital part of the team that pushed for European football last season. His club form has been transferred to the national set-up where he has played 12 times, scoring his first goal against Bulgaria in March, with his double against Switzerland ensuring he can no longer be considered as a simple replacement.

Verratti himself paid tribute to Locatelli by posting a clip of the interview with the Sassuolo player when he received the man of the match award on Instagram.

Is Locatelli now irreplaceable? “No I don’t think so, we are a group, I very much hope that Marco will be able to come back, he is a very strong player who makes the difference,” he insisted. But Inter Milan’s Nicolo Barella, considered before the tournament as a key player in midfield alongside Jorginho and Verratti, no longer feels safe. “It’s not a given that Locatelli goes out for Verratti, I can go out too,” laughed the 24-year-old. Some tough choices beckon for Mancini. – AFP