"We are very pleased and proud to have signed Mattia Caldara," Juventus general manager Beppe Marotta purred on Saturday. Little wonder, because the 22-year-old Atalanta centre-back, who signed for the Bianconeri in January before being loaned straight back, had just scored twice to bring his team a 2-0 win at Napoli and help widen his new parent club's gap at the top of Serie A to 12 points.
The fact that Juventus acquired Caldara in January for €15 million with add-ons went somewhat under radar as he will stay with Atalanta until the summer of 2018. However, his part in the destination of the Scudetto shouldn't be underestimated.
After all, he netted the crucial equaliser for Atalanta against Roma in November on the way to a 2-1 win. And, on Saturday, he was the star at both ends as his club managed to keep a clean sheet at Napoli -- with the Partenopei failing to find the net on home soil for the first time since December 2015 -- and also put a major dent in their title aspirations.
Caldara was responsible for another shock against Napoli on his full debut for Atalanta, too: in the 1-0 win in early October. Gian Piero Gasperini, the coach renowned for fearlessly promoting youngsters, made revolutionary changes to the lineup after a problematic start to the season, and the centre-back was hugely surprised to find himself in the starting XI just hours before kick off. However, he performed brilliantly and it has been impossible to imagine Atalanta without him ever since.
So impressive was Caldara's contribution that Juventus decided to purchase him in January, clearly believing that he can be the long-term heir to Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli.
"I thought it was a joke. I didn't believe it after a dozen of appearances in Serie A," the youngster remarked at the time, but the champions were serious.
It was also a symbolic move. Gaetano Scirea -- arguably the greatest Juventus and Italy central defender ever -- joined the Turin club from Atalanta, where he grew up, in 1974, so expectations are bound to be high.
Caldara is too young to have witnessed the legendary captain in action, or even to have met him -- he was born five years after Scirea was tragically killed in a car crash in 1989 -- but he has another role model in Alessandro Nesta and wears the famous No. 13 shirt which the now-retired defender wore for Lazio, Milan and Italy. He asked for it on loan spells at Trapani and Cesena in Serie B, and got it at Atalanta upon returning to his beloved club in the summer.
Scirea and Nesta were both known as gentlemen; graceful and elegant defenders who led by example, committed few fouls, based their game on supreme positioning and intelligence, and never made headlines off the pitch.
Caldara is on the path to becoming the same type of player too -- he is quiet, thoughtful and very smart. In fact, despite his very young age, he could be the most well-read footballer in Italy. Had he not chosen football as his profession, another option would have been studying languages and literature, and he is especially fond of Russian classics.
Caldara has read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" twice and has enjoyed all of Leo Tolstoy's famous works including "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina." His huge old backpack, which he has kept from his school days, is always full of books, and his Atalanta teammates have become used to the fact that he prefers staying in his room to playing the Playstation -- something he claims is a waste of time. Andrea Petagna, the towering striker who is having a superb season as well, fittingly nicknamed his roommate "The Poet."
The defender has a good sense of humour too. When asked in a Gazzetta dello Sport interview about the possibility of convincing his teammates to share his hobby, he replied that there are much better chances of Atalanta qualifying for European competition next season. "For them to read? I should better shut up or they would eat me," he remarked.
Caldara knows that he is different. A little shy, he didn't have the easiest of times when leaving home for the first time in 2014 and moving to Sicily, where his performances at Trapani were not consistent enough. That is why he sought help from his family, and especially arranged a ticket for his father Stefano to visit his first away game at Carpi.
After the match, however, he found out that Caldara Sr. was unable to bring himself to enter the stadium and wandered around the town instead. For some reason, Stefano believes that he might bring bad luck to his son, and is even afraid to watch his games on TV.
He has been missing quite a lot of action in recent months, because Caldara is having a breakthrough season. Atalanta have conceded just 12 goals and kept 11 clean sheets in 18 league matches with the youngster in the starting lineup. He shows great composure, is calm under pressure, and is first to the ball more often than not. Those qualities make the Nesta comparisons quite relevant, and there is one specific field where Caldara performs much better than his legendary idol.
Nesta was never a prolific scorer -- with just seven Serie A goals to his name in the entire career -- but Caldara managed to find the net five times already and the brace at Napoli made him the top scoring defender in Italy this term.
He is naturally most dangerous at dead ball situations, but the second goal on Saturday was scored on a quick counter attack, as he raced up the the pitch and finished the move with some aplomb. Veteran Juve fans remember Scirea joining attacks that way and though it is far too early to be making such comparisons, his talent is clearly enormous.
Italy coach Giampiero Ventura agrees, singling Caldara out as one of the best prospects for the future and calling him up for the national team training camp last month. He could well be the man to take over the mantle from Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli for both club and country, and a trip to the World Cup next summer is not impossible either. Even his father might be tempted to watch then.
It would be quite symbolic as the tournament takes place in Russia, the country of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. For Caldara, it won't be a story of "Crime and Punishment," but he should be able to discuss his favourite authors with plenty of people there.