It’s a long journey, Cariati Marina to Modena. Almost the length of Italy. By car, it can take you eight or nine hours. Quite the road trip. But Domenico Berardi was keen to make it. He wanted to visit his brother Francesco who was studying there at university. So off he went up north. This was in 2010. It was a trip he’d never forget.
Like many students, Francesco was involved in a five-a-side league. While Domenico was in town, he invited him to play. Only 15 at the time, the lads he came up against were bigger, stronger and older than he was, but not to worry. Berardi dominated. “Who was this kid?” That’s the question one of Francesco’s friends asked him afterwards. “He must be a professional.”
But Domenico wasn’t. Back home in Calabria, he couldn’t even find a club. Cosenza had taken a look at him and they liked what they saw. But they couldn’t afford to put him up in any digs. Luckily Francesco’s friend knew someone at nearby Sassuolo. That someone was Luciano Carlino, the head of the club’s youth system. Not too long afterwards, Berardi went for a trial. He got in.
For a time, there were some issues with his registration. He could only play friendlies. But Berardi was worth the wait. After a season with Sassuolo’s Allievi [their Under-16s], he was picked for the Primavera [their senior youth team]. “The first thing I thought when I saw him play is unprintable,” his coach Paolo Mandelli told Il Resto del Carlino. He knew Sassuolo had something special on their hands.
Brought into the first team squad by Fulvio Pea for their play-off with Sampdoria the season before last, Berardi made his debut under his successor Eusebio Di Francesco at the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign in Serie B. Cesena were the opponents. “This one’s from the Primavera, eh?” their centre-back Gianluca Comotto asked. He was incredulous.
Although Berardi didn’t score in Sassuolo’s opening day 3-0 win at the Dino Manuzzi, he’d pulled the veteran here, there and everywhere. A week later, he got his first senior goal at home to Crotone.
Berardi would finish the season as Sassuolo’s joint top scorer, an honor he shared remarkably enough with three other teammates; Emanuele Terranova, Richmond Boakye and Leandro Pavoletti who all found the back of the net 11 times each. No wonder they got promoted. It was tense, though.
Crowned winter champions and top of the table for 18 straight weeks, Sassuolo needed one win from their last four games to reach Serie A for the first time in their history. Agonisingly, they lost the derby with Modena, drew with Padova and then Virtus Lanciano - Berardi scored in that encounter. It all came down to Livorno’s visit on the final day of the regular season. Lose and their opponents would leapfrog them into the automatic promotion places. Sassuolo held their nerve and won a game in which there were three red cards and seven yellows 1-0 to claim the Cadetto.
Interest in Berardi was understandably high after his part in their success. He’d been a revelation after all. Both Manchester clubs were supposedly scouting him. There was talk of offers from Napoli and Milan. He would stay for now. While negotiating the signing of the midfielder-cum-defender Luca Marrone in a co-ownership deal Sassuolo were told by his club Juventus that they could have a 50% stake in him if they in turn got 50% of Berardi, who would be loaned back to them for this season.
That suited them just fine. An agreement was reached. Juventus, it has to be said, are doing a fine job of essentially reserving Italy’s strikers of the future. They have the same arrangement with Manolo Gabbiadini at Samp  and Simone Zaza  at Sassuolo as they do with Berardi. All are considered top prospects. But that’s a story for another time. Let’s get back to Berardi.
Called up to Italy’s Under-19s over the summer, he made a mistake in not responding to the invite. Unable to offer an explanation, he was banned from representing his country for nine months and will only be eligible for selection again in March 2014. A clamour for reconciliation would grow louder soon after this season started and is becoming even noisier.
Suspended for the first three games following the red card he received in that aforementioned game against Livorno, he didn’t appear in Serie A until after Sassuolo’s 7-0 destruction by Inter, the club he supports. At serious risk of the sack, Di Francesco changed the system from his Zdenek Zeman derived 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, showed his players a betting slip indicating that they were 22-1 to win against next opponents Napoli, a motivational ploy, and brought Berardi back into the side. It kind of worked. They drew 1-1 and have only lost twice since.
In the meantime, Berardi has scored six in seven games. Of the Italians in Serie A only Giuseppe Rossi  and Alessio Cerci  have found the back of the net more. He is averaging a goal every 94 minutes and has a conversion rate of 32% [a stat that needed contexualising].
But Berardi is more than just a goalscorer. He can hold up play and come short. Of all the Serie A forwards to have started more than five games only Francesco Totti, Antonio Cassano, Carlos Tevez, Alessandro Matri, Rodrigo Palacio and Eder have averaged more key passes per game [1.4]. He puts himself about when out of possession too. No Serie A striker has averaged more tackles per game this season [1.5 - as many as Tevez].
“The impression you are left with when you watch him play is how natural Domenico expresses himself at every level,” Mandelli said. “Be it at youth level, in Serie B or in Serie A, Berardi always plays like this.” There’s a self-assurance about him, something the Italians call disinvoltura. Berardi is talented, but what really distinguishes him, at least according to Mandelli, is “a mental strength that’s out of the ordinary.”
Four of his goals have come from the penalty spot. You can scoff at that [and the distortion it puts on his goalscoring figures] but he’s won three of them himself. Only Hellas Verona striker Luca Toni has been awarded as many in Europe’s top five leagues. But whereas the World Cup winner leaves the penalty-taking duties to Jorginho, Berardi takes them himself. Just as Mario Balotelli is respected for the coolness he shows from 12 yards out, so too should he be. His hat-trick against Samp comprised two penalties. And he’s just 19. Look at the players to have scored a tripletta in Serie A by that age: Silvio Piola, Giuseppe Meazza, Felice Borel, Alessandro Del Piero [against Parma in 1994]. Esteemed company. Then of course, there’s Francesco Grandolfo.
Remember how he scored a hat-trick on his first appearance for Bari against Bologna back in May, 2011 - a game, incidentally that later came under scrutiny in the Calcioscommesse investigation? He was just 18. Not since Igor Protti in September 1996 had a Bari player hit a tripletta in the top flight. Hailed as the next big thing, Grandolfo’s tale is a cautionary one. He’s now playing for Savona down in Italy’s third tier.
Expectations around Berardi need to be kept in check. But there’s talent here. Lots of talent. Il Berra or Berardinho as he’s known is definitely one to watch over the course of the season.
Can Berardi maintain his early season form to impress the management staff of Juve and Italy? Let us know in the comments below