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The story of a youngster from Rosario who has overcome his slight frame and short stature to dazzle on the football pitch may sound all too familiar but rather than Leo Messi it is another pint-sized playmaker who has shot to prominence in the opening weeks of the Argentinian Primera season.
20-year-old Franco Cervi is the latest star-in-the-making to emerge from the footballing hotbed of Argentina’s third biggest city and his sparkling performances have helped Rosario Central to a perfect start of five wins from five games that sees them sit top of the table.
It was Cervi’s goal, an opportunistic 25 yard lob after a poor clearance by Sebastian Saja , that gave el Canalla an opening day victory over reigning champions Racing and the diminutive attacking midfielder has since laid on three more assists to give Central their best ever start to a season. Not bad for a player who has yet to play ten senior games for the club.
Praise for the prodigy may well seem premature given the small sample of games to judge him on but the sheer quality Cervi has shown has already marked him out as a genuinely special talent.
Born in the town of San Lorenzo, some 23km north of Rosario, Cervi joined Central when he just 6 years old and made his way through the youth divisions before being called up to the reserves by Hugo Galloni in 2013. 5 goals in 15 appearances were sufficient for the then manager Miguel Angel Russo to give ‘Chucky’ his first team debut at the tail end of 2014.
Equally capable of operating on either flank or in the hole behind the striker, Cervi boasts a bewitching repertoire of skills that has already left many defenders utterly bamboozled and red-faced this season. At a shade under 5’ 5’’, his small size is complemented by a low centre of gravity, slaloming dribbling ability and mesmerizing footwork that can see him skip past players with apparent ease. However, he is no one-trick pony and has proven that he has the end product to go with the lujos (think Argentinian for ‘tekkers’) that see him racking up points on TyC Sports weekly ‘Ranking Lirico’ feature.
Obviously, his slender physique and lack of height means he has little to no chance of competing in aerial duels and can be a target for special treatment from the bully boys of the league. Nevertheless, like many smaller South American players, Cervi is stronger than you would expect and has worked hard to bulk up, having already gone from 63kg to 71kg since the end of last season. Inevitably there will be fanciful comparisons to fellow rosarino Messi, given his size and skills, but perhaps a more apt reference point would be Diego Buonanotte or Maxi Moralez.
Quiet and shy off the field; Cervi seems transformed when he’s on the pitch. Not only does he have fearlessness to actively seek out one-on-one situations and the picardía to pull off an array of tricks and flicks, he also works hard without the ball, presses well and has shown tenacity to win possession back. What’s more, he was confident enough to ask for the sacred No. 10 shirt – “It was free and I asked for it” as he simply put it – and hasn’t been phased by all the responsibility that comes with it, while his intelligence and decision-making when playing shows an impressive level of maturity for a player who only turns 21 in May.
Cervi’s youthful exuberance fittingly seems to mirror that of new coach Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet, who himself is in his first managerial job after a well-travelled career as a player. Often playing either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 that requires plenty of intensity, Central seem to have adapted quicker than one might have initially expected and are reaping the rewards.
Furthermore, the strong additions made during the summer have made the seamless transition possible. With Marco Ruben up front, Central boast one of the better number 9s in the division and he and Cervi have already formed a good partnership, as demonstrated when they combined for the only goal of the game against Temperley. The signings of experienced full backs Pablo Alvarez and Cristian Villagra, both of whom are able to get forward and create numerical advantages, are important for the system to work too, while Gustavo Colman, Jose Luis Fernandez and Cesar Chelo Delgado have also added a touch of class.
With Damian Musto anchoring the midfield, the likes of Cervi and his equally vertically challenged partner-in-crime Franco Niell or Delgado are able to support lone striker Ruben, while Coudet also has the options of Walter Acuña and Nery Dominguez in the wide areas. An injury to a player in a key position could throw a spanner in the works and ruin Chacho’s honeymoon period but, on the basis of these early performances, Central could be a dark horse in the title race.
Despite his stature, Cervi is standing out more than anyone could have expected and it won’t be long before word gets out about this enormous talent. An Italian passport would facilitate a move to Europe but in the meantime Cervi, contracted to Central until 2016, needs to get as many games under his belt as possible in Coudet’s new look Canalla as they dream of a first title in 28 years.
Written by Tom Robinson