Twenty-eighth May 2017, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. It’s the final day of the season and the stage is set for the grand finale of Francesco Totti’s distinguished playing career. The match has nothing riding on it, Genoa are providing the opposition for what promises to be a fitting ceremonial send-off for a modern footballing icon.
Only someone hasn’t read the script.
Just three minutes into the game, 16-year-old forward Pietro Pellegri latches onto a through ball, holding off the desperate challenge of Kostas Manolas to steer the ball into the Roma net. The stadium is stunned into silence. The player himself is open-mouthed with disbelief as he wheels away in celebration. At that moment, it seemed a star had been born. A symbolic handover between old and new.
Earlier that season, aged just 15 years and 280 days, Pellegri had become the joint-youngest player ever to feature in Serie A. However, his emergence was far from unexpected for those in the know. His powerful, imposing physique and deceptive technical capabilities had seen him rise rapidly through Genoa’s youth ranks, consistently playing in advanced year groups. As far back as 2015, he had been courted by Manchester United, whilst Genoa owner Enrico Preziosi had already gone on record to proclaim “We have the new Messi.”
What made Pellegri even more special was that he was Genovese born and bred. He grew up in the Ligurian port city, the son of a club employee and lifelong Genoa fan, Marco Pellegri. Naturally, the bond between father and son is a close one. In making his debut, Pietro opted to wear the number 64 shirt; a nod to his father’s year of birth.
Pellegri carried his momentum from the Olimpico into the 2017/18 season. He seized the chance handed to him by coach Ivan Juric on matchday four, scoring twice at home to Lazio. His father, watching on from the sidelines, was reduced to tears of paternal pride.
But from that high-water mark, things started to unravel for Pellegri. An underwhelming sequence of results led to the sacking of Juric, after which, Pellegri found himself alternating between the stands and the bench. The new coach, Davide Ballardini, apparently preferring the disorderly faculties of Adel Taarabt as a complement to Goran Pandev in attack.
Notwithstanding, Pellegri was a wanted man during the winter transfer window. Juventus, Inter, Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City were all circling – but it was AS Monaco who won the race with a €31 million bid. Still aged just 16, and having signed for a club with a fine reputation for nurturing young talent, the future looked bright for Pietro.
In practice, this is where his troubles began. A hernia problem, which struck shortly after Pellegri’s arrival in the Principality, restricted him to just three brief appearances in his first season. His woe persisted into the 2018/19 season, where a groin injury in September ruled him out for the entire season. Subsequent hopes of a fresh dawn in 2019/20 were quickly extinguished too, with a hamstring ailment preventing him from taking to the pitch at all so far.
Pellegri is in the midst of redefining the term “injury nightmare”. January marked the second anniversary of his signing for Monaco, but it’s unlikely the player will have been in the mood to celebrate. That period has yielded just 6 appearances and one goal, spending 577 of his first 730 days on the treatment table. The sense of frustration is pervasive; recently departed Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim sought to lay the blame for Pietro’s injury problems at the door of his former club.
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“A lot of times, we kill players. Maybe if people had paid more attention two or three years ago, when Pietro was still forming as a footballer, he would not have all the muscle problems that he does today. But nobody takes responsibility. Someone at the age of 16 is not a miniature adult. We have to respect that. Full bone and muscle maturity comes after the age of 18 or 19. This had to be said because it can ruin the lives of young players. I am not talking about money. I think we have to be careful during the development of players.” Leonardo Jardim
As Pellegri approaches his 19th birthday it is difficult to foresee where he goes from here. Clearly, the player’s confidence, not necessarily in his ability, but rather in his body will have plummeted to new depths. A period of sustained fitness represents the first step to redemption for Pellegri. Not unhelpfully, the burden of public expectation has receded from when he first burst on to the scene. And, of course, he still has time on his side.
With a contract running to 2022, Monaco have not yet signalled an intention to divest, but their patience will surely be wearing thin. Both Lazio and Inter were said to be interested during the summer, seeing Pellegri as a backup option for their more established forwards. But if he is going to realise a significant part of his potential, it seems that, more than anything else, the player needs an arm around his shoulder and some time on the pitch.
Just maybe a return home to Genoa is on the cards for next season?
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