5 Potential Candidates for Serie A Comeback Player of the Year
At the end of every season, most American sports leagues give an award for the comeback player of the year. This award is given to a player who has had a strong season after spending the majority of the previous year injured or ineffectively.
There is no official equivalent of this award in Serie A, but there are plenty of comeback stories in the league that, come season's end, may be worthy of such a distinction.
The five players we'll look at today all had disappointing 2013-14 seasons. By May, we may be talking about one of them as the league's best comeback story of 2014-15.
One of the more surprising storylines in the first half of last season was the feud between Napoli manager Rafael Benitez and former club captain Paolo Cannavaro.
A native Napolitano, Cannavaro had worn the armband since the club returned to the top flight following its reformation. He is currently sixth all-time in career appearances for the Partenopei. But for reasons unknown, when Benitez arrived at the San Paolo, Cannavaro suddenly found himself on the bench.
In the three games he did appear in, Napoli had won two, drawn one and only conceded twice.
Then came a substitute appearance against Roma. Cannavaro conceded a free kick that the Giallorossi converted into a goal and was later given a second booking following a penalty call that, on replay, looked dubious at best.
Benitez never used him again.
The rift caused controversy. Marco Materazzi, a fellow member of the centre-back fraternity who had his differences with Benitez when they were together at Inter, told Radio CRC (h/t Goal) last December that the benching "didn't seem right."
Cannavaro's more famous brother, Fabio, was by all accounts enraged.
The situation came to a head at the end of the winter transfer window when Cannavaro was loaned to Sassuolo, who made the move permanent in July.
While at Sassuolo, Cannavaro showed a little of his old self. WhoScored.com clocked him as making 2.6 interceptions per match in the 16 games he started for the Neroverdi. His average of 1.4 tackles per match may seem pedestrian, but he has never been a high-volume tackler in his career, only ever going as high as 1.9 per match in league play.
He turned 33 in the offseason, but those numbers suggest that he still has some gas left in his tank.
Cannavaro's experience would make a perfect complement to 22-year-old U21 international Luca Antei, who had a good season last year. Cannavaro can help him to fulfill his potential and reassert himself as a defensive force at the same time.
Expect the two to develop into a solid central pairing and improve a leaky Neroverdi defense, with the elder statesman playing a key role.
Over the last two years, it's been heartbreaking to watch Simone Pepe battle his way back from leg injuries only to be felled by yet another setback.
A fan favorite in Turin since his arrival from Udinese, Pepe finally made a pair of substitute appearances at the end of last season. He received raucous ovations from the Bianconeri faithful when he made his way onto the field and during the trophy celebration at the end of the year.
This year, the 30-year-old is finally coming in healthy. If he stays that way, he will be a key piece for Massimiliano Allegri. He can deputize on both sides of the midfield in the 3-5-2, but his true importance comes in another formation.
Pepe is one of the few people on the Juve squad that can effectively play the wing. Allegri has been slowly introducing a four-man defensive formation into the team this summer to add some flexibility to the tactical setup.
Pending any late additions to the team—like Ezequiel Lavezzi, whom Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia) says the Bianconeri were scouting at Paris Saint-Germain's season opener—Pepe will be one of the keys to the wing in such a formation.
He scored a pair of goals on Juve's Asian tour and has shown flashes of the player that scored six goals for Antonio Conte's unbeaten 2011-12 season.
If he can keep that up, fans will again be seeing Pepe's trademark golf celebration.
Fabio Quagliarella arrived at Juventus in 2010 and got off to a flying start. He scored nine times before the international break and looked to be the top striker the team had lacked since David Trezeguet left the team.
The knee injury he suffered in the first match back from the winter break threw a massive bump in his career.
Rather than build their forward line around Quagliarella, as they may well have done had he finished the '10-11 season as he had started it, Juve instead had to construct a new line while they waited for his return.
That and Antonio Conte's desire to bring him along gradually saw him return to a crowded forward picture.
He was reasonably successful in 2012-13, when he scored nine times in the league and four more in the Champions League, but he has not been a starter. Since his injury, he has appeared as a sub 42 times and only started 25 games.
His move to Torino is a big opportunity. For the first time since his first half-season at Juve, he will be the primary option on the forward line. After scoring only once in 17 appearances last year, he has the chance to prove once again that he can be a top striker.
He can expect coach Giampiero Ventura—one of the most underrated coaches in Italy—to figure out plenty of ways to get him service, even if fellow forward Alessio Cerci departs the club. Press Association reports the 27-year-old has been linked to Atletico Madrid.
Fifteen to 20 goals isn't an unreasonable expectation for Quags, who can finally complete his comeback from that devastating knee injury and be a top player again.
Going into last season, Fiorentina boasted a strike partnership that had the potential to be amongst the best in Europe.
Giuseppe Rossi, a 30-goal scorer at Villarreal before knee injuries had derailed his career, was set to partner with newly arrived Mario Gomez. The German international had been displaced at Bayern Munich by Mario Mandzukic but was still at the height of his powers.
For two-and-a-half games, they delivered. Rossi opened his account for La Viola in the opener, and they both scored braces in a 5-2 victory over Genoa a week later. A shudder went through the spines of defenders all over the league.
Everything changed on September 15 against Cagliari.
Gomez suffered a serious knee injury against the Isolani. It kept him on the shelf until a February date with Inter, but he still wasn't the same player. He managed only two more goals—one in the Europa League and one in the league—before further damage to his knee in March ended his season.
When healthy, Gomez is as good a striker as there is in Europe.
Over the 2010-11 and '11-12 seasons with Bayern, he scored 80 times in all competitions. In the '11-12 Champions League, his 12 tallies were second only to Lionel Messi's 14.
If Gomez can stay healthy and revive his fruitful early partnership with Rossi, Vincenzo Montella's men suddenly become a serious contender for a Champions League place. If Gomez can go full bore, expect him to be an instant contender for Capocannoniere this year.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Stephan El Shaarawy burst hard onto the scene in 2012-13. With AC Milan needing someone to step up after the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, El Shaarawy scored 14 goals before Christmas and earned a call-up to the Italian national team.
The second half of the season was a different story. Worn down by the grind of his first full season as a starter, he scored only twice the rest of the way.
He started last season by scoring in the first leg of the Champions League playoff round against Ajax, but injuries set in and he only managed six appearances for the Rossoneri by the end of the year.
El Shaarawy is only 21 and still has an entire career ahead of him. His potential is still enormous. His abilities are ideally suited for the Carlo Ancelotti-inspired 4-3-3 that Filippo Inzaghi is likely to install at Milan this year.
Playing on the left wing, Il Farone often looks like Cristiano Ronaldo-lite, cutting inside and either finishing or laying the ball off for his teammates. Seeing him healthy would be a huge boost.
His return could also signal a renewal for Mario Balotelli. The two showed chemistry in late 2012 when they played together on the national team, and if the two can regain that chemistry, both could catch full form—which would be a massive shot in the arm for the club.