Who is Nicolo Barella? Italy’s €50m midfield sensation wanted in Milan and being watched by Man Utd

On Sunday evening, Inter and AC Milan will collide on the field in the first Derby della Madonnina of the new season.

Off the field, though, the pair are embroiled in another battle, one which has only intensified and grown during the international break.

After making an impressive start to his Italy career, Nicolo Barella is now undoubtedly one of the most coveted young players in world football, with both Milan clubs, Juventus and Roma all fighting for his signature.

In addition, Manchester United have scouted the 21-year-old ace several times, while Atletico Madrid tried everything to persuade Cagliari to part company with their home-grown hero last season only for club president Tommaso Giulini to refuse to sell.

Anyone who watched Italy’s 1-0 win over Poland on Sunday night would have seen just why Barella has attracted the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

He was the best player on the pitch at the Silesian Stadium – no mean feat given he started in midfield alongside Chelsea pass-master Jorginho and Paris Saint-Germain star Marco Verratti. 

Azzurri coach Roberto Mancini was effusive in his praise of Barella’s performance in what was only his second appearance for his country, while Fabio Capello compared him to the legendary Marco Tardelli.

“Barella’s the player who can change the tempo in midfield,” the former Italy boss told Radio Anch’io Sport .

“He gives something more in terms of quality and quantity, which we lacked before. 

“He reminds me a bit of Tardelli on a dynamic level.”

Nicolo Barella Capello Italy PS

Barella’s industry is undeniably impressive. 

Blessed with incredible stamina, he gets through an impressive amount of work in the middle of the park and, in that sense, it’s easy to understand why two midfielders-turned-coaches in Gennaro Gattuso and Diego Simeone are both so enamoured with him.

No outfield player in Serie A has made more recoveries than Barella this season (72), while only five players have won more tackles than him (16). Only one midfielder has made more interceptions, while he ranks fourth in terms of duels won. 

However, there is more to his game than tenacious tackling and a relentless pursuit of possession. Barella is also both talented and brave on the ball.

At just 21, he has already developed into a leader at Cagliari, a player willing to take charge of the game. Only six midfielders in all of Serie A have had more touches than he this season (557), which only serves to underline his importance to the Cagliari side, while his long, raking, right-footed passes are a feature of every game the Sardinians play. 

He is willing to take players on too. He has completed more dribbles (8) than wingers Douglas Costa and Ivan Perisic (6), while he has created more chances (12) than the likes of Radja Nainggolan (9) and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (9). 

As an aggressive, indefatigable midfielder lining out for Cagliari, comparisons have obviously already been made with Nainggolan and Barella admits that he is just as committed as the Belgian.

“I think people say we’re similar because we always give 100 per cent on the field,” the youngster reasoned. “I hope to have a career like his but I still have so much to learn to reach those levels.”

Nicolò Barella Poland Italy UEFA Nations League

Indeed, while Barella is also versatile like Nainggolan, capable of playing anywhere in a midfield three or as an attacking midfielder because of his excellent vision and technique, he knows that he needs to score more.

The Gazzetta dello Sport once labelled him ‘The Sardinian Steven Gerrard’ but, in truth, he has yet to find goals as easy to come by as the former Liverpool captain. Still, he is improving in that regard, hitting six in 34 Serie A outings last season. 

There has also been constant speculation linking him with a move to Anfield, sparking giddy talk that Liverpool could use Barella’s love of their most famous stakeholder, basketball superstar Lebron James, to lure him to Merseyside, but Goal understands that the Reds are happy with their midfield options right now and have told Giulini that they will not be meeting his €50m asking price.

Essentially, Liverpool have no intention of being lured into a bidding war, particularly after spending over £100m strengthening their midfield with the recent acquisitions of Naby Keita and Fabinho. 

That is not to say that Barella will not end up in the Premier League, though.

As a proud Sardinian who took his first steps towards becoming a professional at the football school founded by Cagliari legend Gigi Riva, he loves both his club and his city, but he has made no secret for his fondness of the physicality of the English game.

Nicolo Barella Premier League PS

“If I had to choose between Serie A and the Premier League, I’d go for England, because I like the way they approach the game,” he told the Gazzetta dello Sport . “Plus everyone there is just as irritable and prone to fouls as me!”

Still, while Barella may be a combative character on the field, he could not be more agreeable off it.

Even though he is only 21, he is already married with a daughter and is renowned for his down-to-earth nature and humility. 

Indeed, the kid that once said his dream was just to “have a nice garden and a pool” met his idol Dejan Stankovic four years ago and “wasn’t brave enough to say anything to him”.

He doesn’t lack courage when playing football, though, admitting that he felt “no pressure” whatsoever ahead of his Italy debut against Ukraine.

His subsequent performances certainly supported that claim, with Barella exhibiting a composure and nerve that is rare in someone so young. 

“He is extraordinary,” Cagliari coach Rolando Maran enthused after last month’s draw with AC Milan.

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“I put him as a playmaker in front of the defence towards the end and he didn’t put a foot wrong. He just gets better and better. 

“He is a player who is ready to be a key figure in the Nazionale going forward.”

He’s already showing that. The next step will be proving he can cut it at a top club. His chance will come too. It’s merely a question of when and where.


Juventus join race for Barcelona & Man City target De Ligt

Juventus have joined Barcelona and Manchester City in the race to sign Ajax defender Matthijs De Ligt, Goal understands.

The Netherlands international has become one of the most sought-after players in world football, with numerous elite clubs tracking his progress at the Dutch giants.

Goal understands that both Barca and City have registered their interest in signing the 19-year-old, who would cost upwards of €50 million (£43m/$57m), and that the Premier League champions began laying the groundwork for a move towards the end of last season.

Barca see the player as the next Gerard Pique, but De Ligt is under contract until 2021 – with Ajax having the option to extend that for a further year – and appears in no rush to make a decision over his future.

Juve’s interest, however, may complicate matters for both Barca and City, with the club working alongside agent Mino Raiola to negotiate a price for De Ligt.

The Serie A giants are keen to bolster their defensive ranks, with Andrea Barzagli set to leave the club at the end of the season, and Medhi Benatia and Daniele Rugani potentially expendable.

Juve’s sporting director Fabio Paratici has thus identified De Ligt as the best possible purchase option in either January or next summer, though both the Italian side, and Barca, would struggle to match the financial muscle of Pep Guardiola’s City.

De Ligt is highly-rated across Europe, and Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar, the former Manchester United goalkeeper, waxed lyrical about the potential of the defender earlier this year.

“He looks like he’s been doing this for six or seven years,” Van der Sar said in an exclusive interview with Goal. “Matthijs is very mature for his age: he has the physique of a 24-year-old.

“He is also strong with both feet, has an extremely good range of passing, can head the ball, scores goals and is a real leader at the back already at the age of 18.

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“He came into the first team last year and has never looked back.”

De Ligt is already Ajax captain, and has played 14 games for the club this season, while he has also won 11 caps for the Netherlands.

As reported by Goal, Barca and City are also going head-to-head for one of De Ligt’s Ajax team-mates, Frenkie De Jong, with both sides believing the other has the advantage in negotiations.


Bartomeu: Barcelona open to defensive reinforcements

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said the La Liga champions could sign a new defender in January amid their injury crisis.

Experienced defender Thomas Vermaelen will miss six weeks with a hamstring injury, joining World Cup-winning centre-back Samuel Umtiti on the sidelines.

Umtiti could be out of action until the new year, leaving Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet as the only recognised centre-backs at Camp Nou.

Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld has emerged as a possible January target, while Barca continue to be linked with Ajax star Matthijs de Ligt.

Asked about Barca’s defensive issues ahead of the January window, Bartomeu said: “Well, injuries happen all of the time in football, you have to deal with it.

“These two centre-backs got injured so we are now a little thinner at this position.

“Even so, Gerard Pique and Lenglet are both there and ready to cover well.

“A new defender? Well we always have our eyes open so let’s see what we will decide to do in January.

“Injuries also allow younger players to play so you have to be able to cope with it.”

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Barcelona sit second in La Liga through eight matches having conceded just nine goals in that time. 

The Catalans will have a chance to go top of the league this weekend as they take on current leaders Sevilla.

They will then turn their attentions to the Champions League where they face a crucial clash with Inter. The two clubs sit level on six points in Group B through two matches. 


Juventus working on new contract for record-breaker Kean

Juventus are looking to tie record-breaking frontman Moise Kean to a new deal, Goal understands.

The 18-year-old, who has re-written the history books since making a senior breakthrough in Turin, is currently working on a contract through to 2020.

Interest in luring him away from the Serie A champions has been shown, with La Liga outfit Leganes and Ligue 1 heavyweights Marseille having made approaches over the summer.

Juve are eager to ensure that they remain the ones to benefit from Kean’s considerable potential, however, and are planning to table fresh terms.

It could be that another loan switch is sanctioned for the youngster once a deal is agreed, with the 2017-18 campaign having been spent with Verona.

By the time that move was made, Kean had already become the first player born in the 21st century to make his debut in one of Europe’s top five divisions.

Juve handed him his bow as a 16-year-old in November 2016.

He has since become the first player born in the 2000s to grace a Champions League game and the first to score in an elite league – having netted against Bologna on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign.

More record-breaking was achieved in his most recent outing – once again relating to his date of birth – as Kean opened his goal account for Italy’s U21 side in a 2-0 victory over Tunisia 

He has also taken in another European outing for Juve this season, in a meeting with Young Boys, and is considered by Massimiliano Allegri to be a useful option for the present and future.

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The Bianconeri are pleased with the progress being made in his development and feel that upward curve can be maintained with an extended stay in Turin.

Working alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in training is expected to present Kean with the opportunity to learn from and emulate some of the finest performers in the business.

He may face fierce competition for attacking berths at the Allianz Stadium, but the Vercelli native is held in the highest regard by Juve and they will be doing all they can to ensure that contract extension talks reach a positive conclusion.


Pato refusing to rule out AC Milan return after China stint

Alexandre Pato has admitted to receiving “some offers from Serie A teams” during his time at Tianjin Quanjian and has refused to rule out a possible return to AC Milan.

The Brazilian striker burst onto the European scene with the Rossoneri following a move from Internacional.

He spent six years at San Siro before heading home, netting 63 goals in 150 appearances.

Pato’s career has since taken him to England, Spain and China, but the 29-year-old admits there may be further chapters for him to write in Italy.

A man working on a contract in Asia until December 2019 told Corriere dello Sport: “I’ve received some offers from Serie A teams and also from other European leagues.

“We’ll see at the end of the year. I’m very happy that Leonardo and [Paolo] Maldini have returned to Milan, for them and also for the fans who needed people to be the face of Milan.

“I’ve spoken to Leo a few times, and of course there were some jokes about my possible return to Milan.

“Joking aside though, I have a year on my contract here in China and we’ll see what happens. I receive so many comments every day from Milan fans on social media, from Italy and around the world.

“That makes me happy, and it makes me think that despite some years having passed since I left, the affection from the fans has never gone away.

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“Who would I like to play with at Milan? That’s a question I’d ask the fans: with whom would you like to see me play in this Milan?”

Any future move to Milan could see Pato join forces with fellow Brazilian Lucas Paqueta, with the 21-year-old midfielder due to complete a €35 million (£31m/$40m) switch to San Siro from Flamengo in January.

“Paqueta is very good, my advice is to learn Italian quickly and try in every way to do well immediately. The Milan fans are incredible and will love him,” said Pato.