Conor Clancy Date: 29th July 2020 at 4:59pm
Written by:

STADIO ENNIO TARDINI (Parma) – Dejan Kulusevski was deserving of more in his final home appearance as a Parma player on Tuesday evening, but the 20-year-old again proved against Atalanta what a special talent Juventus are adding to their ranks ahead of 2020/21.

With the confidence of a seasoned Champions League-level forward, Kulusevski gave Atalanta’s backline nightmares from the first to last whistle and showed them something that, in Josip Ilicic’s continued absence, they could’ve had in their own side this season.

So effective was the No.44 that each of Atalanta’s three starting defenders were replaced, and not one of Jose Luis Palomino, Bosko Sutalo nor Mattia Caldara could do anything to get close to him.

When the Swede stepped onto the pitch at the Tardini a year ago in the Primavera final against Inter, he might have already had an idea that it was going to be his home for the following 12 months but he couldn’t have predicted just how quickly he’d take to top-level football.

On that typically humid June evening in 2019 he showed signs of what he could have gone on to do in Nerazzurri colours, but by the time he played his last there for the Gialloblu against the club that nurtured him he had surpassed what even his biggest believers would have considered possible.

By opening the scoring on Tuesday Kulusevski became the first foreign player under the age of 21 to hit double digits for goals scored in a season since Mauro Icardi and Erik Lamela in 2013.

As well, he joined Erling Braut Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood as the only four players born this century to score at least ten goals in Europe’s top five leagues this season.

But goals aren’t all that he’s delivered.

To add to the ten of his own, Kulusevski has racked up eight assists and that’s without Parma having a settled centre forward to set up for much of the season due to the injury problems constantly hanging over both Roberto Inglese and Andreas Cornelius.

With a direct hand in 18 of Parma’s 52 Serie A goals so far this season, he’s been responsible for 34.6 percent of their strikes. That’s not a bad return for anyone’s first season playing professional football.

In fact, his record is so good that no foreign player has had a bigger hand in Serie A goals for the Crociati since 2004/05.

The statistics are so impressive that anyone, however little or much they’ve actually watched him play this season, could point to them and claim that he’s ready for the step up to Juventus.

But seeing Kulusevski up close puts that beyond doubt, be it on the pitch, in the mixed zone or around the charming city of Parma.

He has a star quality and aura that’s hard to quantify. He appears even taller than his 6’1” frame when he moves, he oozes class and swagger in a way that makes comparisons with NBA’s superstars unavoidable.

When you see Kulusevski away from the pitch you know that he’s a star already. He doesn’t need to boast or act in a brash manner for that to be noticed. If anything, his humility only adds to it all.

Comparisons are natural in football, and Kulusevski is bound to face countless.

His teen-like appearance could be seen as similar to Cristiano Ronaldo’s in his early Manchester United days, but he has shown even more than his soon-to-be-teammate did in his first steps at Old Trafford.

His way of deception in possession wouldn’t be out of place at Atalanta, where Papu Gomez excels at exactly that while the way he glides around on the right before shifting into space on his left foot is something that only Ilicic can do as well as him.

But to compare him to any of the above would be to miss the point. Kulusevski is already a top player in his own right, and deserves to be spoken about as such, rather than to have tentative fears expressed about him that he could follow a similar path to Federico Bernardeschi in Turin.

Kulusevski isn’t Bernardeschi. At 20, he’s already a player with elite-level ability. He has improved throughout 2019/20 and he’ll be impossible for Parma to replace next season.

Juventus, on the other hand, are getting a player who is good enough to be and should be a regular in their XI and one who has everything needed – from his mentality to his ability – to play a starring role on the biggest stage.