Pitchside Europe

Cerci finally lives up to hype

Alessio Cerci has shone at TorinoEvery now and again Alessio Cerci still thinks about it. Why wouldn't he? Things could have been so so different.

Watching Manchester City dramatically win the Premier League title in stoppage time on the final day of last season, a part of him presumably thought that it should have been him.

Roberto Mancini had apparently wanted to buy Cerci from Fiorentina ahead of that campaign. "He's the best winger in Italy," the City manager supposedly said.

Yet his interest in Cerci was quite surprising.

Because, while he'd scored seven goals in Serie A the previous season and was finally showing signs of fulfilling his potential under the then Fiorentina coach and Mancini's former assistant at Inter Sinisa Mihajlovic, it was hard to imagine him ever seriously competing for a place in City's first team.

This was the sort of signing you'd have expected City to make before the club's takeover by Sheikh Mansour. In terms of profile, it was closer to Rolando Bianchi and Bernardo Corradi than, say, Daniele De Rossi, another transfer target at the time.

Maybe that's harsh. But then it's also true that when Cerci did eventually leave Fiorentina this summer, it was for Torino where, as it happens, the 25-year-old now trains and plays alongside Bianchi.

Now 25, looks back on how near he was to joining City with understandable regret. "The deal seemed closed," Cerci revealed to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "They told me that it was 99% done. Then I don't know what happened."

Its collapse took some getting over. "I believe that I deserved that opportunity," Cerci added, "otherwise they wouldn't have inquired about me." From then onwards, he began to act like he was entitled to it. They, or someone of equal stature, would be back.

And this, it might be said on reflection, was the beginning of Big Time Cerci. For instance, during pre-season that summer, Mihajlovic told him to go for a run. Cerci didn't fancy it, though. His foot hurt.

As you can imagine, a hard man like Mihajlovic wasn't having it. They rowed and Cerci was not named in the squad for a friendly against Newcastle United. Things would deteriorate further throughout last season.

Fiorentina's Curva Fiesole had never really warmed to Cerci. In truth, they were suspicious of him, not least because there had been sightings of him supposedly walking around town with a cat on a leash.

How eccentric, you might think. Evocative no doubt of another Torino winger, the great Gigi Meroni, who once pulled up in Como, his conservative hometown, got out of his car and proceeded to walk a chicken around the main square on a lead before then taking it down to the lake where he tried, unsuccessfully, to put a bathing suit on his feathered friend.

Unlike Meroni in the `60s, however, Cerci wasn't seeking to make a statement challenging social conventions. In this case, the people had simply got it wrong. "It wasn't a cat," Cerci would later clarify, "but my chihuahua Stiui."

Of course, Cerci's choice of pet wasn't the reason why he fell foul of the Fiorentina fans. That would be petty. Rather there was an element of Campanilismo to it; that strong sense of local identity and the pride taken in it.

As a Roman in Florence and one who had played for regional "rivals" Pisa too, Cerci was a guest of the city and as such there was an expectation that at the very least he should treat its people and its club with a certain degree of respect. By their standards, he didn't do that.

Apocryphal are the tales of Cerci's many run-ins with the local traffic wardens. On his way out for a meal one time, he reportedly parked his Maserati where he shouldn't have. It was a bay reserved for the police. When told to move his vehicle, Cerci apparently got cocky and said sure he would but not until after he'd eaten. "Don't you know who I am?" was the gist of it.

It was as though he felt he were untouchable, that he could do whatever he wanted.

Some of the criticism was unfair. Travelling to Formentera to complete on a villa after a 2-0 defeat to Palermo probably wasn't the best idea. Certainly when he had a new manager to impress in Delio Rossi after Mihajlovic had been sacked. His priorities were questioned.

But at least Cerci had Fiorentina's permission. Unfortunately the notary got delayed. Cerci arrived back to training a day later than expected and was dropped. And just when you thought his relationship with the supporters couldn't get any worse, his girlfriend got involved.

After Fiorentina beat Novara 3-0 with Cerci demoted to the bench, a status update on a Facebook page that was attributed to her read as follows: "They won a game against Novara and it seems like they've won the Champions League against Barcelona. Fools!!!"

When her beau wasn't named in the team to face former club Roma in the Coppa Italia three days later, she returned to social media. "No Cerci? No Coppa Italia!!! ahahahaha... bye bye Delio and bye bye Viola fans ;)"

Cerci denied the messages had come from her. He'd rescue the situation a little later on in the season by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win at Lecce on the penultimate day of the campaign to ensure that Fiorentina survived relegation.

Another incident in pre-season, however - the damage to a restaurant booked to celebrate his birthday and the insults alleged to have been directed towards its owner by those in attendance - was said to have led Fiorentina to declare: 'Basta'.

"I had nothing to do with it," Cerci insisted in his defence. "Other teammates drank and made a mess that night. I'll never name names."

In fairness to Cerci you do get the feeling he was made a scapegoat for Fiorentina's problems. They didn't just get rid of him this summer. They got rid of the director of sport, the interim manager [as one might expect] and 13 other players, among whom Juan Manuel Vargas, Andrea Lazzari and Houssine Kharja had also had disciplinary issues [the latter, it must be remembered, only for his wish to commute from Milan to Florence for family reasons]. So it was clear that there was something rotten about the state of Fiorentina as a whole.

"There's been an extraordinary furore around me," he lamented. "Unmanageable Cerci. Arrogant Cerci. Cerci who only thinks about nice cars... So what? Many people like cars and I mean no harm.

"The image of a hot head doesn't belong to me. I'm a very simple guy. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't go out whoring."

Cerci isn't of the opinion that Fiorentina sold half of his rights to Torino this summer because he was a bad apple or that they'd had enough of his character. "Perhaps it was transfer strategy," he argues. "Or maybe because [Vincenzo] Montella needed a wide-player who's better at tracking back than I am in a 3-5-2."

Still, you get the distinct impression that a fresh start was exactly what Cerci required. Torino wanted him dearly. President Urbano Cairo even caught up with Cerci on holiday at Forte dei Marmi to convince him to join.

The appeal was certainly strong. Moving to Torino would mean a reunion with Giampiero Ventura, his former coach at Pisa, where the 20-year-old Cerci had been sent on loan by Roma. While there he would provide the inspiration for a run into the Serie B play-offs, adding to the hype that had followed him ever since Fabio Capello had given him a Serie A debut at the age of 16.

Ventura and Cerci were a perfect match. Here was an Italian coach renowned for playing a 4-2-4 formation, a system that exalts the winger. Traditionally Italy doesn't produce many. Anyone with skill is usually told to come inside and become a No.10. Meroni, Pietro Fana, Bruno Conti and Roberto Donadoni are the few natural wide men that spring to mind.

All too aware of this, Ventura has a real appreciation of Cerci. He recognises him for what he is: a rarity in the Italian game. "With me [Ventura] shows a patience that the others didn't have," Cerci told Sportweek. "He knows he has an important player on his hands. He has best understood my potential."

Unsurprisingly, Cerci has flourished this season and if newly promoted Torino are comfortable in midtable, a lot of it is down to him. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was in the stands on Sunday to watch him score and put in a Man of the Match performance in a 2-1 win against Atalanta. A call up to La Nazionale is expected.

Rather than acting up, Cerci has finally got his act together. "I hope it comes across that I have understood that you need to live a professional life to give your best on a Sunday. Eat healthily, get to bed early and train with intensity."

"I wish to show who I really am at Torino, something I have only managed up until now in flashes. I have examined my conscience. I know that I've made mistakes, but there's still time to give a sense to my career and end up at a great club."

Maybe not City. For that ship has sailed. But there'll be others, certainly in Italy, if Cerci continues playing like this from now until the end of the season.