The column of the week from Richard Hough for all the Verona-lovers speaking english.
With Angelo Ogbonna injured on Saturday while playing for West Ham, and Alessio Romagnoli crashing out of the warm-up ahead of Milan vs. Verona, Roberto Mancini called upon several new players to augment his squad for yesterday evening’s friendly against Estonia, ahead of the more important Nations League double-header to follow.
Amongst the newcomers was Mattia Zaccagni, a key figure in a resurgent Hellas Verona team in the last couple of seasons, who joins Marco Silvestri in being called up for the Italian national team for the first time this season.
Until then, Rômulo was the most recent Hellas Verona player called up to the Italian national team, following an impressive run of form with Verona in the 2013/14 season.
It’s a proud moment for the 25-year-old Emilian winger, who hasn’t progressed through the usual channels of representative youth football, and for his adopted city of Verona, which generally looks upon the national team with some indifference.
Back in March, Zaccagni was at home convalescing, having tested positive for Covid-19, one of the first Italian players to receive a positive diagnosis.
His call up is just reward for hard-work and perseverance.
Emerging from Verona’s Primavera squad in 2013, “Zac” spent the following season at Venezia in Lega Pro, before returning to make his Serie A debut under Andrea Mandorlini in the 2015/16 season. He then spent another half season in the Lega Pro, this time with Cittadella, and finally made his breakthrough with Verona in the 2016/17 season, earning 26 Serie B appearances.
Over the last five years or so, Zac has been a loyal and familiar face in Verona, gradually increasing his presence and overall contribution. For Hellas, he’s perhaps been regarded as a ‘luxury’ player, who hasn’t quite delivered the end product in a team that was fluctuating between the lower reaches of Serie A and the upper echelons of Serie B.
But in the last couple of seasons, Zac has really begun to make his presence felt.
Hardly a prolific scorer (his career total is 9), one of his most notable goals came in the return leg of the playoff final against Cittadella, a historic comeback that propelled Hellas back into Serie A.
Since then, his confidence seems to have grown and he’s become one of Juric’s most exciting offensive outlets. With five assists last season, his contribution was second only to Lazovic, an indispensable cog in Juric’s vertical attacking system.
This season he has demonstrated a degree of consistency that has hitherto been lacking, showing confidence and flair even on the biggest of stages against the likes of Milan, Juve and Roma, cementing his place in Juric’s starting eleven, and contributing vital assists, including a delightful dribble and cross for Favilli against Juventus.
A direct runner with the ball at his feet, his pace and trickery are a defender’s worst nightmare. He earns a disproportionate number of fouls, a product of his electrifying pace and directness and, it must be said, his propensity to go down under the first sign of contact.
Juric recently described him as one of the most intelligent players he’s ever coached, and it is true that Zaccagni has that rare talent of being in the right place at the right time. He has been rewarded for his recent good form with a contract extension that will keep him in Verona until June 2022.
But something that he will have to continue to improve is his effectiveness in the final third of the field (last season he managed just 1.1 shots every 90 minutes), particularly if he is to secure a place in the national team ahead of the likes of Barella, Castrovilli, Locatelli and Pellegrini.
The last Hellas Verona players to play for Italian national team were Gigi De Agostini and Roberto Tricella, way back in 1987! So, the fact that Silvestri and Zaccagni are even being considered for the national team is a measure of how far we have come since Juric took over barely 18 months ago.
With a raft of young talent now emerging, it can only be a matter of time before another Hellas player finally pulls on that famous Azzurro jersey. It might even be our Zac!