“It’s a dream come true,” Riccardo Saponara would say shortly after agreeing terms on a move that would signal his arrival at one of Europe’s grandest clubs back in the summer of 2013. “I never thought I would achieve this as for me, Milan represent football and Kaka used to be my idol.” The Italian midfielder was part of an exciting corps of youngsters snapped up by the Rossoneri as they looked to rebuild following the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva.
Joining Saponara in Max Allegri’s squad were the likes of Bryan Cristante and Andrea Poli, while Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy had already established themselves as regulars in the starting XI. Yet despite assurances from Adriano Galliani that these talented stars – and the investment in youth they represented – were the future of the club, the Vice President would lose his nerve before the transfer window closed.
Bringing back veteran players Alessandro Matri and Kaka, it was somewhat ironic that it would be the Brazilian who prevented Saponara from realising his dream in the famous red and black shirt. The gifted playmaker would see just 218 minutes of action for Milan, his path to the first team made even more impossible by the arrival of Japanese star Keisuke Honda, picked up from CSKA Moscow just as the Russian season drew to an end.
At the same time, the club – who had been Serie A champions just two years earlier – was struggling to remain competitive, slumping to mid-table and prompting some drastic changes. Allegri would be sacked on January 13 after a stunning 4-3 loss to newly promoted minnows Sassuolo, with Clarence Seedorf was appointed as his successor just three days later.
At the end of the season it would be Filippo Inzaghi’s turn to lead Milan, but despite his previous role in the club’s youth sector, he too would persevere with the aging players provided by Galliani, and by January of this year Empoli announced they had secured Saponara’s return to the Stadio Carlo Castellani.
It was with the same Tuscan club that the midfielder had first come to prominence, joining them from Ravenna back in 2009. Starting out as a winger, it was at Empoli that Coach Maurizio Sarri moved him into a central role, using his speed and vision to great effect as the Azzurri sought to escape Serie B. Saponara would weigh in with 13 goals and 15 assists in the 2012/13 campaign, only to see the team fall short of their target as they lost in the playoff final to local rivals Livorno.
They would win promotion during his absence however, and upon his return the 23 year old would slot seamlessly back into Sarri’s side as if he had never been away. He would score in his first top flight outing for Empoli, with six more goals – and three assists – coming in just 17 appearances and in May Milan would allow him to make the move permanent for a reported €4 million fee.
His influence has continued strongly into the new campaign, already contributing four goals and three assists in 2015/16, a tally which includes a match-winning free kick against Palermo and strike against Milan on his return to San Siro.
“Milan didn’t give me the time or opportunity to prove my worth, but Empoli at least allowed me the chance to fail,” Saponara would tell the Corriere dello Sport recently, though in truth he has done nothing of the sort. His form since leaving the Rossoneri has been simply sublime, drawing reported interest from Juventus, Napoli and Everton with a string of sensational displays.
Possessing a wonderful first touch and excellent close control, Saponara constantly appears to be two steps ahead of opposing defenders, able to slip beyond them or pick out a team-mate with incredible ease. Indeed, were Empoli’s other attacking players a little more accurate in front of goal, his assist tally could be much higher, with statistics courtesy of Squawka.com showing he has created no fewer than 22 clear scoring opportunities this term.
Miralem Pjanić is the only player in Serie A able to top that figure, and his AS Roma side enjoy a far high percentage of possession than Empoli. Having shown his loyalty to them this summer by refusing a number of offers to leave, it cannot be long before Saponara is once again playing in a team where his obvious talents can shine even more brightly.
“I’m still disappointed by the way things went at Milan,” he went on to say in that aforementioned interview. “But the experience gave me a lot in terms of character and there are certain trains you should always board if they are passing.”
His current form once again sees him standing on the platform holding a ticket, and it will be interesting to see what destination Saponara chooses as his next stop.
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