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There is just one week to go before Socceroos coach Graham Arnold must decide his 26-man squad for the Qatar World Cup.

But one of the hottest prospects in Australian football, teen gun Cristian Volpato, has shot into contention as a bolter after scoring and assisting for Italian giants Roma in the biggest moment of his blooming career to date.

The performance reignites a long-running debate over whether Arnold should cap Volpato and thereby ensure his allegiance to Australia rather than Italy, who he is also eligible to represent on the international stage.

Volpato, who was previously rejected by Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers before his stunning rise at Roma, has represented Italy’s youth international sides but has not played at the senior international level – meaning whichever nation first hands him a debut will effectively lock him in for the future.

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Jose Mourinho’s Roma were level with Verona at 1-1 heading into the final two minutes at the Stadio Bentegodi. Then 18-year-old Volpato met fellow substitute Nemanja Matic’s low cross with a perfect first time finish to put the away side ahead.

Australia-born Volpato then ensured Roma would take three points when he slid in Stephan El Shaarawy to net a third in stoppage-time with a perfect through ball.

Volpato with El Shaarawy after the match.
Volpato with El Shaarawy after the match.Source: AFP

It moved his team above Lazio into fourth place in Serie A, a week before the Rome derby.

“The manager called me up, I hadn’t even warmed up or anything. I’m really happy to have come, score and change the match,” Volpato said after his first appearance of the campaign. Asked what Mourinho told him, he replied: “He said I must be very lucky!”

“I know that I am the youngest and that I need to be patient and show respect for everyone,” Volpato added about the likelihood of becoming a starter for the side. He has made four appearances in Serie A – three of those coming last season – scoring twice.

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Volpato celebrates his brilliant goal.Source: AFP

Legendary manager Mourinho said he wasn’t afraid of throwing the youngster into the action off the bench.

“I believed in the talent of a young boy (Volpato) and his creativity and his eye for goal,” Mourinho said after the match.

“After having a taste of the first-team, he signed a contract extension, and now he is a player with first-team quality.

“He’s young, he has a lot still to learn every day, but he’s already at the level required.

“When I put him in it wasn’t me being crazy or taking an absurd risk.

“I didn’t know for sure that he was going to score the winning goal, but I knew he had the capability of doing so.”

In February, Volpato scored his maiden Serie A goal – also against Verona. But Socceroos coach Graham Arnold said he wouldn’t give the youngster a cap (and prevent him from playing for Italy) before he had earned it.

“I’m not into just capping people and tying them down for life – it’s Cristian’s decision and his family’s decision,” Arnold told News Corp.

“We’re watching him, we’re monitoring him, we’re talking to him, I’ve spoken to his dad Oscar … they’re a beautiful family, and good people.

“The most important thing is Cristian makes that right decision on what feels right for him,

“I’d love Cristian to play for Australia but the conversation is around what he wants to do and what his family wants.”

“At the moment Cristian is enjoying no doubt this unbelievable experience of working with Jose Mourinho and his agent (Italy and Roma legend) Francesco Totti, and the conversations they’re having with him are no doubt about his career and his life.”

Volpato’s reputation among Australian fans took a hit in March after the Socceroos were beaten on home soil by Japan in World Cup qualifying – a result which forced the Aussies into the play-offs to book a place in Qatar. The teenager sent a Snapchat to friends which showed the result of the match alongside a laughing emoji, a picture which soon went viral on social media and drew plenty of angst from Socceroos faithful.

But if he can back up his brilliant effort against Verona with strong performances against Ludogorets in the Europa League and then a massive derby with Lazio, Graham Arnold will be sorely tempted to call him up for the World Cup – and with Italy absent from Qatar, Australian fans might just have the last laugh.

Mentor and former coach Tony Basha, though, believes it’s unlikely Volpato will represent the Socceroos, telling Kick 360: “I think his heart is set on representing Italy.

“He’s playing in the youth team and doing really well and there’s very very strong rumours that the Italian national team is going to call him up to the first team.

“He’s not upset with Australia, he’s a proud Aussie kid but the people working around him, they want him to stick to playing football for Roma. At this stage, I don’t think there’s a chance he’ll play for the Socceroos.”

In another interview with FTBL, Basha said: “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news but I think he’s sticking with Italy right now.”

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Arnold in September handed a Socceroos debut to another 18-year-old attacker Garang Kuol, despite the youngster having never started a senior professional match.

Kuol came off the bench nine times for the Central Coast Mariners last A-League Mens season, scoring four times and assisting another. But he impressed for the national team, earned a future move to the Premier League with Newcastle United, and has started the new domestic campaign in lightning form.

This weekend, he came off the bench against reigning champions Western United and made another massive impact. A damaging run through the midfield was ended in brutal fashion when he was axed down by Nikolai Topor-Stanley, with the tackle earning a red card from VAR.

Then, he left United’s Ben Garuccio looking a fool when he nutmegged the fullback and sent in a cross which deflected to Jason Cummings to score.

Coach Nick Montgomery told Paramount+ after the match: “Everyone’s saying: ‘Start him’, but look: I think he’s not ready to start games.

“Because the impact he has when he comes on against Barcelona, for the Socceroos, in the A-League is magnificent.

“I don’t want to put that pressure on him, (but) if I was Graham Arnold I’d be looking to take him as an impact player. I told him that this week, I told him he needs to work harder and if he wants to start he needs to work harder, and show me he’s ready to start.”

Montgomery continued: “I thought today it was the right decision to bring him on at half time. He changed the game. His potential is massive and everyone can see that.”

Kuol and Cummings made their Socceroos debut together, with Cummings scoring a penalty won by Kuol – and their flourishing combination at club level will likely convince Arnold to select both for the Socceroos World Cup squad, which will be announced on November 8.

Cummings added a hat-trick of assists to his goal for the Mariners this weekend, leading the team to a 4-2 comeback win after going down by two goals. He could have even had a hat-trick proper had two of his other strikes not been overturned.

Cummings had 10 goals in 21 appearances last season, with two in three games this time out.

The pair have one last opportunity to book their place on the plane to Qatar when they face Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday.

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Elsewhere in the A-League, 21-year-old winger Marco Tilio – already capped five times this year under Arnold – delivered his best performance of the season for Melbourne City.

Tilio won a penalty and scored in the first half for City against Wellington Phoenix, before the Victorian club coughed up their comfortable lead in a 2-2 draw.

Jamie Maclaren scored the penalty for City, his fifth in four games this season to comfortably lead the golden boot race – and assert himself as a virtual lock for the Socceroos come Qatar.

Craig Goodwin (Adelaide United) is another Socceroo surging in the A-League of late, after he struggled with injury in pre-season.

After two bench roles in the opening rounds, he’s played the full 90 minutes in back-to-back matches, and opened his scoring account against Perth last time out.

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Paramount+ analyst Daniel McBreen said: “He cannot not be (on the plane). In my opinion he’s the best, without a doubt Australian player playing in the A-League Men at the moment.

“He consistently creates opportunities, he scores goals, his delivery is second to none particularly from set pieces as well, I can’t see unless, and barring injury touch wood, any reason why he would not be (on the plane).”

“He’s got goals in him as well,” added Scott McDonald. “He’s always a threat going forward.

“What he lacks in pace at times you could argue, he has in guile. When he gets in these areas more times than not … he picks out the right person.

“He was involved in everything good about Adelaide United today, and that’s no surprise – he always is. If he keeps this form up heading into the World Cup, he’s got to be on the plane for me.”

Winger Brandon Borrello (Western Sydney Wanderers) hasn’t featured for the Socceroos since earning his fourth cap in June 2021. But he scored and hit the woodwork in a 2-0 win over the Newcastle Jets, and would have had an assist had Kusini Yengi not missed a simple chance.

– with AFP

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