Living the dream: Rising star Zaniolo, Roma and Italy’s big hope

Rome (AFP) – Nicolo Zaniolo may be only 19 but the Roma midfielder is already living the dream in a breakthrough season which has seen the youngster from Tuscany emerge as the next big hope of Italian football.

Having played for Inter Milan’s youth side last season, Zaniolo joined Roma as part of the deal last summer that sent Belgian Radja Nainggolan in the other direction.

The towering teenager, who stands at 1.9 metres (6ft 2in) tall, was only supposed to be a squad player for Eusebio Di Francesco but has emerged as one of the breakout stars in a difficult season for the Roma coach.

On Tuesday, he will line up in his sixth Champions League match for Roma as they host Portuguese giants Porto in their last 16, first-leg tie at the Stadio Olimpico.

On Instagram, Zaniolo showed his delight by sharing two photos, one of him as a football-mad child, the other with the Roma jersey, alongside the message: “Always believe in your dreams.”

The past five months have been a whirlwind for the player from Massa, rejected by Fiorentina after coming through their youth system.

He is already being compared to club legend Francesco Totti after becoming the youngest Roma player to score his first three senior goals for the club since Totti, aged 18 in 1995.

“He’s like Totti, one who speaks little and always wants the ball,” said Di Francesco of the youngster.

“Mentally he’s in a good place at the moment and I want to make the most of his youthful energy, his desire and determination.”

Italy coach Roberto Mancini had already spotted the potential of the versatile midfielder as he rebuilds after the four-time World Cup winners’ failure to qualify for Russia 2018.

It was Mancini who gave Zaniolo his first call-up for Italy on September 3 without him having even played a single game in Serie A.

His Roma debut came later on September 19, playing on the biggest stage against European champions Real Madrid, before getting his league start against Frosinone.

“I’m happy that Di Francesco is playing Zaniolo,” said Mancini.

“I had followed him in the Under-19 team and I realised that he had uncommon qualities for such a young boy, and he wasn’t even a professional player yet.

“With respect to others, he had more physical presence and more quality. I think that the facts have proved I was right. 

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