With so many reasons to romanticise Roma‘s Europa Conference League victory, it’s easy for Nicolo Zaniolo’s story to get lost in the middle of it all.
Long-suffering supporters again tasting glory after 14 years, manager Jose Mourinho making it five European trophies, a Roman captain in Lorenzo Pellegrini doing something neither Francesco Totti nor Daniele De Rossi could throughout their splendid careers in red and yellow.
There is so much to focus on and to highlight following the success in Tirana but Zaniolo’s recovery also warrants its place.
Inserted as a makeweight in the deal which took Radja Nainggolan from Roma to Inter, Zaniolo wasn’t supposed to explode onto the scene and suddenly become one of the most talked-about teenagers in world football.
And when he did, he wasn’t supposed to miss the majority of the next two seasons due to back-to-back knee injuries with have hampered – and at times ended – many promising careers over the years.
Zaniolo remains arguably Italy’s most naturally-gifted footballer at present and it is a huge shame injury robbed him of a place in the victorious Euro 2020 campaign. He will not be at the next World Cup due to Italy’s failure for Qatar 2022.
The usual question marks over how much importance Mourinho gives to young players even put Zaniolo’s future at Roma in question at the beginning of the season.
However, the former Inter boss made Zaniolo one of his key figures this campaign and has been handsomely rewarded. After a slow start, the 22-year-old has produced some of the best moments of his career so far which culminated in the brilliant goal which gave the Giallorossi their first European trophy since 1960-61.
When Zaniolo burst onto the scene during that 2018-19, he showed bursts of pace, composure, trickery – he was the full package. He could create space, confuse defenders and, above all, score goals.
In one match against Sassuolo, he did it all. Sent down the right wing, he ran just enough past the defenders that he had full control of the ball but knew he would have to cut back.
And when he did, defender Gianmarco Ferrari and goalkeeper Andrea Consigli were ready for it. What they weren’t prepared for was the second dummy, which sat both down. Then, to top it all off, Zaniolo dinked the ball over the pair of them into the back of the net.
It’s clear that pace will be affected by serious knee injuries, especially more than one so close together, but Zaniolo’s recovery shows his football intelligence and his ability to adapt his game to his strengths.
His goal against Feyenoord in Tirana on Wednesday may not have been glamorous but the balance he showed to chest Gianluca Mancini’s pass into the only place he could and quickness to get the first and put the ball past goalkeeper Justin Bijlow was just as impressive.
And no one deserved that moment more than Zaniolo as reward for his determination after two years of injury hell.