Khouma Babacar: Is the big Senegalese forward the man to fill Fiorentina’s Gomez and Rossi-shaped void?

Since the mess left behind by Delio Rossi after his sacking in 2012, Fiorentina have been on an upward curve under the ownership of the Della Valle family. La Viola narrowly avoided relegation after caretaker manager Vincenzo Guerini was left to pick up the pieces left by Rossi and aiming for a resurgence, the club’s owners appointed Vincenzo Montella and handed him £23 million to spend on a total of 17 new players.

A further £8 million was spent the following January on Giuseppe Rossi, the prolific scorer of Villarreal who was on the road to recovery from a knee injury that had ruled him out of action for around 16 months. Rossi suggested what an asset he could be to Montella’s attack with 17 goals from 24 games in the 2013-14 that was however again hindered by injury.

Last August Rossi’s right knee would buckle once more, ruling him for another 5 months and increasing concerns that the 28 year old will never truly shake off the unfortunate injuries that plague him.

Montella aimed to partner Rossi with Mario Gomez who was signed from Bayern Munich in 2013 for £14 million, though Gomez’s spell in Tuscany has also been hampered by injury, managing only 9 appearances in his debut season.

Goals have also been sparse for Gomez, scoring just five times in the 18 months he has spent in Italy, so searching for a solution to his attacking problems and being discouraged from adding to the total of €30 million it took to bring in Gomez and Rossi, Montella was guided towards using Fiorentina’s own resources and promoting from within.

The manager would be permitted to spend around £7 million last summer, which has been considerably outweighed by the £27 million generated from the sale of Juan Cuadrado to Chelsea this January, and a benefactor of that austerity has been Khouma Babacar, the 21 year old Senegalese striker who has gone from loan spells in Serie B with Padova and Modena to La Viola’s top-scorer in Serie A.

The past 2 years represent a huge turnaround for Babacar, close to being discarded after the unsuccessful year at Padova which attracted comparisons to Mario Balotelli’s attitude-level, he responded by scoring 20 times in 40 games for Modena and that hot-streak has been carried on into Serie A where he now has 7 goals from 16 appearances.

Comparisons have also been made with George Weah and Didier Drogba from as early as when Fiorentina signed Babacar as a 16 year old. Born in Thies, Babacar would begin playing with his hometown club US Rail before he was taken by Pescara in 2007.

Originally offered to Fiorentina, former sports director Pantaleo Corvini would sack the 2 scouts that rejected the first choice and would pay Pascara £35,000 to bring the young striker to Florence. Franco Rondanini, who runs an Italian football school and who first brought Babacar to the country from Senegal, says his talent was noticed early, and not just by Corvini. “Before signing the contract with Fiorentina, Real Madrid and Manchester United were pressing the parents” he said.

Cesare Prandelli, then Fiorentina’s coach, would promote Babacar to train with the first team and described him as a “player of unlimited technical prospect. The Senegalese would make 3 starts in the 2010/2011 season, often being restricted to coming off the bench and the following year he was loaned out to Racing Santander.

Rondanini however would be sure of his talent from the very start, calling the player’s parents to announce his pride after the attacker scored on his Fiorentina debut as a 16 year old in the Coppa Italia. “They were crying on the phone” he recalled.

When a serious knee injury stalled his progress when on loan at Padova it would cast doubt on whether he would prove Rondanini, Prandelli and company correct, but he is now ingrained in Montella’s plans as a centre-forward who operates between two wide-players in a 4-3-3 or in the manager’s more preferred 3-5-1-1.

A height of 6ft 3 inches enables him to pack the power and physique to play the centre-forward role effectively, while his tireless work-rate is infectious, a habit of constantly putting defenders under pressure is hugely appealing to Montella.

His strong physique has seen Montella choose to field him with lighter, more technical players like fellow youth-team graduate Federico Bernardeschi, Josip Ilicic and Juan Cuadrado, who has now departed and replaced by Mohamed Salah, for those in support to take advantage of the space vacated by the Senegalese’s occupation of the opposition.

The 18 fouls he has drawn so far, together with the 34 he has committed himself suggest what a handful he is for defenders, and Montella’s system is designed for more nimble-footed players to run into the space that is created as a result.

For the big striker up front he does not possess great stats in the air, winning just 37% of his aerial duels so far, though in Fiorentina’s fluid passing game it can be misleading, with Babacar extremely good at using his feet to link-up the play. That can often lead to the striker dropping off outside the box to attempt to get involved in the play.

This leads to chances being sacrificed, as suggested by his underwhelming shot average of 2.3 per game, and his impressive pace not being fully utilised. His preference not to lurk in the box and pounce on chances is best summed up by Montella, who says “he’ll become a great striker when he’ll score ugly and meaningless goals.”

For Babacar there is perhaps no better mentor than Montella, the former Sampdoria and Roma striker who scored 202 goals in a 19 year career. “Babacar has to grow,” said the Fiorentina coach at the start of the season, “he still makes too many mistakes during the game, but I see in him an endless potential still untapped.”

Though the powerful, direct and energetic 21 year old is maturing all the time in his unexpected adventure with La Viola, it may not take too long for that potential to be tapped into.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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