Italy's youth development is a subject being discussed by most people involved with Calcio. On the whole, the situation is looking very promising with a wealth of young talented players making an impact on the world stage. Players like AC Milan's Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy may be the exciting ones to watch in the Azzurri senior team, but it is the under-21 'Azzurrini' squad that is taking the limelight at the moment with stunning displays in their U-21 European Championship group stage.
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Many of these youngsters are already proving their worth among the first teams at their respective clubs, like Napoli striker Lorenzo Insigne, PSG midfielder Marco Veratti or even the ex-Inter primavera and Roma striker Mattia Destro. However, the part of the 'Azzurrini' squad that excites me the most is the defensive third of the formation. Consisting exclusively of Inter Primavera players in the first choice team, the Nerazzurri youth system is more than contributing to the next generation of Italian superstars.
Starting in goal is a 20-year-old shotstopper, Francesco Bardi, who is being dubbed by many as the eventual heir to Samir Handanovic's number 1 shirt. After spending the last season on-loan at Serie B side Novara, he has drawn praise from the Italian press for his outstanding performances and top class goalkeeping. This great run of form has continued into the U-21 competition, too with Bardi conceding just one goal in the three games he's played so far. It is still unclear as to what the future holds for Bardi next season, though I would say it is likely that he may once again go out on-loan. To help build his experience, I think he would benefit hugely from spending a season in the top flight with one of Serie A's lower ranked teams instead of playing in the second tier. He will then be prepared return to Inter for the following season to become the understudy for Handanovic and maybe play a few games in the starting eleven for the Nerazzurri.
Moving forward to the centreback role we find the 'Azzurrini' captain, Luca Caldirola. The 22-year-old is co-owned by both Inter and Cesena, who received 50% of his card as part of the Yuto Nagatomo deal back in January 2012. I am hoping that Inter will see value in the player who signed for the Nerazzurri youth system as an eight-year-old. His performances for the 'Azzurrini' in the matches against England, Israel and Norway under 21's have been of a fantastic standard, which will hopefully give Inter the incentive to buy him back 100% and introduce him slowly into the first team set-up alongside Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus. His towering 6-foot, 2-inch frame also makes him a real threat in the air both defending and attacking set pieces for his team.
The other first choice centre-back for the Italian U-21 team is a player who impressed me greatly during Inter's pre-season last summer, Matteo Bianchetti. Even at just 20 years old, he is already a much stronger defender than Caldirola, and for me he is looking to have far more potential than the Inter first team and Italian national team starter, Ranocchia. Like Caldirola, Bianchetti could be considered a veteran of the Inter youth system, playing at every level since he signed for the club's under-15 team. Despite the potential I can see in Bianchetti, he is still to gain much first team experience, even when Inter sent him on loan to the Serie B runners-up Hellas Verona in January this year. He has proved to be a fantastic player in the U-20 Italian team this summer, through his aerial ability and defensive prowess he has shown in his two appearances his true potential, and has been rewarded by being one of the 'Azzurrini' best players during the group stage. Like Bardi, I think he would benefit greatly from going out on loan again, hopefully to a team that can give him consistent Serie A experience before he returns to integrate with the Inter first team.
Another 20-year-old Inter youth team veteran that has made a splash in the European tournament is Cristiano Biraghi who plays as a left-back. Biraghi signed for the Inter youth system way back in 2005, and made his first team debut as a substitute for Goran Pandev in the 2010-11 Champions League match against FC Twente. The following European game against Werder Breman saw his first competitive start for Inter and he has also featured in several friendly tournaments, including the Pirelli cup match against Manchester City in the summer of 2010, a game in which he scored one of the goals in the 3-0 victory. Biraghi has spent the last two seasons out on loan to Juve Stabia in Serie B for the 2011-12 season, making just 11 appearances before switching to Cittadella last term in which he played 33 times for the second tier team. Despite his great performances for the Italy under-21 team, I can't see a future for him within the Inter first team. As a left-back he doesn't fit into Mazzarri's formation of a three man defence, and even when the team play a four man back line, the preference is usually for a wing-back as opposed to a purely defensive player. Therefore I wouldn't be surprised to see the club cash in on Biraghi this summer while he is fresh in other clubs’ minds from this competition.
The last representative of Inter in the U-21 national team is the 23-year-old right-back Giulio Donati. He has also produced some fantastic displays in the U-21 European championships on the right of the defensive four. Donati began his Inter youth career in July 2008 and made his first team debut during the Coppa Italia 1-0 win against Livorno in December 2009. A good performance saw Jose Mourinho call him up for the squad in the next two competitive matches against Lazio and Chievo, and he even made the starting line-up in a mid-season friendly match against the Saudi side Al Hilal. Like Bianchetti, Donati has been one of the 'Azzurrini' top performers in the current competition, but to be honest, like Biraghi, I just can't see him breaking into the Inter first team any time soon. His style may fit Inter's tactics better than Biraghi, with him having a strong crossing ability, but the Nerazzurri have another right sided youth defender who in my opinion is a much stronger prospect. If it came to a choice between Donati or Ibrahima Mbaye for the first team, unfortunately it would be the youngster from Senegal that would get called up every time for me. Of course, Donati isn't getting any younger, meaning he will need to find a first team to play in soon. This unfortunately means he will more than likely join Biraghi on the transfer list this summer and be heading out of the Inter set-up.
As you can see, with these players along with names such as Samuele Longo and Daniel Bessa, there is no shortage of promising young Italian players being produced in the Inter youth academy, but if you ask many Interisti whether the Nerazzurri's youth project is going according to plan, the majority would tell you that it has been a disaster so far, with many promising youths being ignored for first team duties.
This may be the case, but that doesn't mean Inter are ignoring their youth project. If the players aren't suitable for the tactics the club plays or aren't the best youth option available for the future of the team, then they still have their own part to play in the project by providing funds and profit from their sales to enable the club to finance itself. The important thing to remember is that Inter are producing quality youngsters for the future of Italian football, and the project is about the stability of the club, not just producing young players that will take to the pitch in an Inter shirt.