Del Piero's star beginning to wane

Glenn Moore on a rare talent who may yet join the Italian exodus
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The Independent Online
He is arguably the most talented young player in the country, with a championship medal and a growing collection of international caps to his name. When he picks up the ball out on the left flank the stadium hums with excitement. Veteran male supporters and young girls alike - his picture adorns a thousand bedroom walls - watch his every move.

Yet his form has dipped and questions are being asked. Has he been found out? Was he just a meteor which flashed across the northern sky before burning itself out under the weight of expectation?

This is the sort of thing that was being written about Ryan Giggs not so long ago. Now it is being said of Alessandro Del Piero, the gifted Juventus striker who hopes to play against Giggs and Manchester United at Old Trafford tonight.

"Hopes to?" A year ago his place would have been unquestioned. He had lit up the group stages of the Champions' League with a series of brilliant individual goals - Borussia Dortmund, Steaua Bucharest and Rangers were bewitched in turn. He was tipped to be the star of Euro '96.

Yet 1996 has proved a grim year for Del Piero. His European Championship lasted 45 minutes before he was replaced by the less exhilarating but more reliable figure of Roberto Donadoni. Since then niggling injuries and inconsistency have put even his club place in doubt. His selection tonight is likely to be due to Antonio Conte's injury rather than his own form.

Giggs will recognise the problem. Exhaustion, mental as much as physical, has taken its toll while the injuries have been hard to shake off. Overplaying is seen as a British problem but, in one week last year, Del Piero played for Italy, the Under-21s, and the Italian Army (on national service). There were also Juventus' demanding Champions' League and domestic campaigns.

Now, it appears, Juventus may be willing to take further advantage of English's football's profligate mood and sell Del Piero as they did Fabrizio Ravanelli. Given Del Piero's youth - he was 22 earlier this month - it would seem an odd move but last week Gianni Agnelli, still the power behind the Juventus empire, hinted at the possibility.

"If an English club were to make an offer for Del Piero it would depend on what the player wants," Agnelli said.

Maybe. Ravanelli, also a childhood supporter of the Biaconeri, was given no such choice. If he had been he would have stayed. Del Piero, whose contract runs to 2000, may find himself in a similar position.

Having grown up idolising Michel Platini - whose No 10 shirt he now wears - Del Piero signed for the Vecchia Signora from Padova at 18. He scored five goals in 11 games in his first season but was almost sold to Parma at the end of it. Dino Baggio went instead and Del Piero stayed to displace Roberto Baggio for club and country and win the Fifa Young Player of the Year award for 1995.

The goal ratio has slowed (20 in 76 Serie A games before this season) but this is partly because he is usually played on the left side of a front three. For Italy he plays on the left of a midfield four but he can also play in the hole or as a conventional forward.

Quite a catch then - but who could afford him? As he prepared to put himself in the shop window tonight, Del Piero said: "I wouldn't be surprised if an English club made a move for me. English football has undergone a vast expansion in terms of finance and skill levels. Also it is far less stressful to play in than Serie A. We'll have to wait and see whether I go over."

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