Richard Kharman –
Piotr Zielinski is well known in Italy and in his homeland, Poland, but not many outside these two countries have heard of him. The young 22-year-old Polish international has been crafting his trade in Italy since 2011. Zielinski started with Udinese and subsequently was loaned to Empoli where, under then head coach Maurizio Sarri’s tutelage, he started to impress.
Then this past summer, many clubs throughout Italy vied for his services and ultimately Napoli, with their new manager Maurizio Sarri, acquired him. Zielinski has been a staple in the Partonopei line-up this season and has been a real difference maker.
As the teams lined up to hear the iconic Champions League hymn before the match against Real Madrid on Wednesday night, many of the Napoli starters looked a bit nervous. You cannot blame them really, playing in the beautiful Stadio Bernabeu in a round of 16 matchup against eleven times winners Real Madrid, is one of the toughest tasks in football.
Piotr Zielinski looked oddly comfortable against Real Madrid
One young player looked oddly comfortable and relaxed, however, and that player was Piotr Zielinski. He stood tall and confident; there was no evidence that this was his first round of 16 match against a legendary club. Piotr Zielinski was poised to showcase his talent and Napoli needed the Polish player at the top of his game if they were to have any chance of pulling a miracle result on the road.
Zielinski’s first touch of the ball was as if he was one of the legendary playmakers that the Serie A has produced in the past. Zielinski retrieved the ball, and in his best Andrea Pirlo imitation, held the ball in close quarters with an opposing player bearing down on him. He coolly and calmly slid the ball to his open teammate. It did not lead to a goal, but Napoli retained possession and was able to play the ball out of their defensive end—it was a small, insignificant play, but one that could have resulted in an opposition’s goal, if not executed properly. It was the mature sort of play that seems out of place with a young player.
A few minutes later, José Callejón chested a ball to Zielinski. As he received the pass, Toni Kroos was bearing down on him. Zielinski coolly pirouetted away from Kroos, charged up field and with the outside of his right foot, found Elseid Hysaj on the right flank with a cheeky pass. It was one of many instances where Zielinski showcased his impressive technical ability, which at times was reminiscent of Real Madrid’s playmaker Toni Kroos. The pass led to a scoring opportunity for the Partenopei.
Piotr Zielinski will be one to watch in Italy
Later at the top of the Napoli box, Hysaj gave an awkward pass to Zielinski who was quickly closed in on by three Madrid players. Once again, the young Polish player kept calm, shielded the ball from one of the Madrid players and fed his goalie Pepe Reina who cleared the ball from danger area. Most players in this situation would give it away for a great scoring chance. Not Piotr Zielinski. Not only good with the ball at his feet, Zielinski has shown great defensive intelligence and willingness to use his big frame to shield away opponents to retrieve the ball.
As the game progressed, it was becoming more and more evident that Piotr Zielinski was right in his element. As a matter of fact, he was right smack dab where he was supposed to be—on a big stage, directing the strings of an orchestra. Though the match ended in favour of Real Madrid, Piotr Zielinski’s performance stood out. In the 70 minutes plus played before being substituted for Allan, Zielinski only lost the ball on two occasions—on one of those times he was fouled and on the other he won the ball back right away.
Zielinski will be one to watch out for in the return match between Real Madrid and Napoli. While you are at it, check out his running-mate in midfield, 19-year-old Amadou Diawara. The two midfielders have easily been two of the best five midfielders in Italian football this season and, despite the rather disappointing result against Real Madrid on Wednesday, the future appears to be bright for Zielinski in particular, and for Napoli in general.
Richard Kharman is a freelance writer born and raised in Washington, DC. Growing up as an AC Milan fan, he is passionate about all things Italian football. He also enjoys all European football in general. When he is not writing about or watching football, he can be found on the Serie A Sitdown podcast on World Football Index. Follow Richard on Twitter @R_Kharman.