"Pirlo still has a lot to offer," explained Italy coach Antonio Conte ahead of Saturday's UEFA EURO 2016 Group H qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia. "However, this may be the chance for someone like Verratti to show they could inherit this role in midfield. The time is right for him to take the reins of the team."
With Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo injured, Marco Verratti is eager to seize his opportunity to shine. The 'Little Owl' has covered almost every midfield position with Paris Saint-Germain, but Conte has shied away from playing him alongside Pirlo in his favoured 3-5-2 system, preferring to have two box-to-box men either side of his 'regista'.
"The coach tends to select midfielders who work a lot off the ball and create space for the forwards, which is not my strength," the 22-year-old Verratti said earlier this month. "I'd do a lot better in front of the defence, but Pirlo is there, so my position will be on the right or left side of the bench!"
A humble attitude, considering his recent displays for Paris in Ligue 1 and Europe. Verratti excelled when the French team drew 2-2 at Chelsea FC two weeks ago to qualify for the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Personality, vision, the ability to play one-touch football and precision with long balls have always been Verratti specialities, yet the former Pescara Calcio prodigy's decision-making has improved during his three seasons in the French capital. He now only takes risks when necessary.
It may seem harsh – especially given Conte's complaints about the lack of Italian talent at Europe's top clubs – that Verratti cannot command a starting berth, but he has accepted the status quo. However, with Pirlo approaching 36, Verratti knows time is on his side.
"I'll always be available, but that doesn't mean I always have to play," he said. "I've got to earn my place in the team. A young player must work even harder, because a coach counts on the experienced players first – that's understandable. I won't make a fuss if Pirlo comes back and I go on the bench."
Asked whether he and Pirlo might ever team up, Verratti shrugged. "It's the coach's decision whether I can play together with Pirlo or not," he said. "For a coach, it's good when there are lots of decent players because competition helps you win trophies."
While Pirlo will remain a major figure in Italian football, for his achievements with the national side and the way he can play, the Bulgaria fixture is another chance for Verratti to show he is waiting in the wings. The 'Little Owl' is ready to fly.
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