ROME – An 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli announced himself to followers of Italian soccer by absolutely smashing a shot past Gianluigi Buffon to give AC Milan a 1-0 win over rival Juventus five years ago.
It was just the second shot on target of his Serie A career, having also scored with his first a few weeks earlier in a wild 4-3 win over Sassuolo.
That breakout month of October 2016 heaped so many expectations onto Locatelli that he eventually struggled with the pressure of being labeled Italy’s next great player.
Well, he's not struggling anymore.
The multi-talented midfielder scored twice in a 3-0 win over Switzerland that made Italy the first team to secure a spot in the last 16 of the European Championship -- with a game to spare.
His first goal was an ideal example of modern soccer: Locatelli’s left-footed volley from his own half sent Sassuolo teammate Domenico Berardi streaking down the right flank, after which Locatelli charged forward and was set up by Berardi’s cross to score from close range with his right foot.
“I knew that Domenico was out wide and I made a perfect impact with the ball with my left foot,” Locatelli said after picking up the man of the match award. “The cross-field pass galvanized me and I surged into the area and was fortunate that Domenico gave me a great ball and I was able to score. It was really beautiful.”
His second was a long-range blast that left Switzerland’s goalkeeper immobile.
“The first goal was a jewel, a play that began with a really high-quality technical effort, then finished with a perfect insertion. The second showed off one of the best parts of his repertoire — his shooting,” veteran coach Claudio Ranieri wrote in a Gazzetta dello Sport editorial Thursday.
The previous Italy player to score a brace at the European Championship was Mario Balotelli against Germany in the 2012 semifinals.
“Manuel is a complete midfielder and he’s acquired character over the years,” Ranieri said.
Locatelli has openly acknowledged that one of the reasons Milan let him go to Sassuolo in 2018 was that he wasn’t ready to perform consistently with such a big club.
He is now. And that’s one of the reasons why returning Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri reportedly wants the Bianconeri to spend 25 million euros ($30 million) for his rights.
The price might go up now, but the transfer talk doesn’t bother Locatelli.
“When you’re playing in a big tournament like this your focus has to be exclusively on that,” he said. “This is a competition that every kid dreams about playing in. It’s actually easy to stay focused on this tournament.”
Locatelli gained his spot in the starting lineup for Italy’s opening two matches because of an injury to Marco Verratti, who is expected back for the next group game against Wales.
Having also overwhelmed Turkey 3-0 in the tournament opener, the Azzurri need only a draw against Wales to win Group A, but they clearly won’t settle for just one point.
Italy has won 10 straight matches by scoring 30 unanswered goals over nearly 1,000 minutes of play.
Coach Roberto Mancini has worked wonders for a team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“We always want to attack with a lot of players, and often with the midfielders, which sometimes brings risks,” Mancini said.
The Azzurri are on a 29-match unbeaten run.
“Italy again showed what we saw against Turkey: dribbling, pressing, running, continuity. It’s a national team that plays like a club and that really highlights the work that Roberto Mancini is doing,” Ranieri said. “It seems like a perfect orchestra to this point.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf