Jack Grealish's refusal to shy away from wanting the ball is a talent that makes him "outstanding", according to former Chelsea and Italy star Gianfranco Zola.

The Aston Villa captain led his side to an 11th-place finish in their first season back in the Premier League, before enduring a quiet summer for England at Euro 2020, where he managed two assists across 173 minutes of action.

Grealish was streaks ahead in terms of creativity last term, creating 70 chances in the Premier League from open play – 26 more than any of his team-mates and just seven fewer than Bruno Fernandes' league-high 77.

Those figures translated into 10 assists for Dean Smith's main man – making him joint-fourth in the league with Son Heung-Min - despite his expected assists being just over 6.5.

A former number 10 himself, Zola is a fan of Grealish and what he offers to both Villa and England.

"I really like Grealish for his courage and his initiatives. Maybe sometimes it could be hard to give him a tactical task because he likes to be creative in every part of the forward front.", Zola told Stats Perform.

"But he always creates something important and, again, he never flinches. He always wants the ball and creates. These are qualities that will make him even more outstanding."

Grealish's ball carrying does not solely create chances from open play either, given he won the most fouls in the final third (41) – seven more than nearest competitor Wilfried Zaha – and regularly offers Smith's side opportunities from set-pieces, too.

Villa (62) ranked third in the league in terms of chances created from set-pieces behind Manchester United (64) and Chelsea (68), which means Grealish's direct running offers another facet to the Villans' attack.

The 25-year-old midfielder may want to add goals to his game, though – while he did net six times last campaign, the positions he gets himself into suggest he should be scoring more.

Contrastingly, however, Grealish outperformed his expected goals (4.65), therefore criticism of his finishing may seem a tad harsh and unwarranted.

With Smith at the helm and with Grealish hopefully staying at Villa Park, Zola saw reason for optimism amongst the Villa faithful.

"Aston Villa are not a random club. They have had a great season and ended in the left part of the table, always improving.", the former Azzurri forward added.

"They have a very good manager that is making the squad grow."

Italy are European champions and on a long unbeaten streak but should be even better by the time of the 2022 World Cup, according to former forward Gianfranco Zola.

The Azzurri have been transformed under Roberto Mancini since missing out on qualifying for the previous finals in Russia.

Mancini's men won the Euro 2020 final against England on penalties and are now undefeated in 34 matches, the longest run in the team's history.

However, Zola – who earned 35 caps and scored 10 goals between 1991 and 1997 – sees an even brighter future for Italian football.

Despite including 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci (the oldest scorer in Euros final history) and 36-year-old captain Giorgio Chiellini (the third-oldest player in final history), Italy named only the 12th-oldest squad at the tournament.

"To get into Mancini's shoes and give him hints on how to improve this team is out of question and risky," Chelsea great Zola told Stats Perform.

"As it is, this squad will be even more competitive in the World Cup.

"They will grow in confidence and improve even further because most of the players are young. To me, they will get to an even higher level."

An already impressive Azzurri midfield could also be boosted by the return from injury of Nicolo Zaniolo, the 22-year-old who has not played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in action against the Netherlands in September 2020.

That was the Roma man's second ACL tear in eight months – having suffered the same injury to his right knee – and checked the progress of a promising career.

 

In 69 appearances for Roma, Zaniolo has scored 14 goals and laid on six assists from 55 chances created. He has also netted twice in seven senior caps at international level.

"Then [in 2022] some players like Zaniolo will be available," Zola added. "If his injuries [have been] absorbed, he will be an important player to give the contribution needed to make this squad even better

"And, to me, some other youngsters will shine, because the long wave of enthusiasm given by this trophy will make many youngsters step up.

"Italy will be competitive at the World Cup – no hints needed for Mancini."

But Zola also anticipates another challenge from beaten Euro 2020 opponents England, who reached their first major tournament final in 55 years.

The average age Three Lions' line-up for the final (26y 328d) was almost two years younger than Italy's (28y 272d) and they also have room to grow.

"It is an extremely young and talented squad," Zola said. "England can only grow and this defeat won't be a problem.

"England, like Italy and Spain, boast many young lads with such room to improve. Let's not forget that England often kept out players like [Jadon] Sancho, [Marcus] Rashford and [Phil] Foden that are very important.

"I would be surprised if England weren't a team to beat in Qatar. They have a bright future."

Gianfranco Zola believes there is little prospect of social media platforms becoming safe spaces for sports stars, warning: "Bad people will always be there."

England footballers Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were subjected to racist abuse online after their penalty shoot-out misses in the Euro 2020 final.

Those failures from the spot helped Italy to land their second European Championship triumph.

There have been calls for the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to police their platforms more effectively, with 19-year-old Saka urging the three tech giants to each step up their game.

Former Italy and Chelsea forward Zola told Stats Perform: "Racial abuse is unjustifiable, unforgivable and unacceptable. I reckon that youngsters have to understand very quick that not all people they come across on social media are good.

"They use it to provoke, insult, abuse and vent their daily frustrations. We have to get used to it and learn how to isolate from this. Especially young people who are famous like footballers.

"These are all unjustifiable attacks but we have to learn how to isolate from it all because these bad people will always be there."

Zola, who enjoyed a seven-year spell at Chelsea and collected 35 caps for the Azzurri, explained there is a "dark side of social media".

He said: "Many people use [social media] in an absurd way and can cause damage to kids who are on social media and are not ready to accept all this.

"If you are into social media, you have to be aware these can be used by people to insult and destabilise. This is the dark side."

Gianfranco Zola has claimed England boss Gareth Southgate was "too conservative too soon" in the Euro 2020 final and suffered the inevitable consequences.

Italy's penalty shoot-out victory over England at Wembley on Sunday has been followed by reports that Southgate could soon be knighted.

That is despite his team falling short when they had home advantage, failing to build on Luke Shaw's second-minute strike that was the earliest goal scored in a European Championship final.

Roberto Mancini's impressive Italy had 19 shots to England's six over the 120 minutes, while also enjoying 65.4 per cent of possession. The Azzurri finished with an expected goals score of 2.16 compared to England's meagre 0.55, underlining their dominance of the chances.

Leonardo Bonucci's second-half equaliser was followed by Italy edging a nervy battle on spot-kicks to land the trophy for the first time since 1968, and Zola sensed England retreated too quickly into their shell.

"Maybe Southgate was a bit too conservative because England boast important players at the highest level," Zola told Stats Perform.

"They were doubtlessly advantaged and having scored after just two minutes gave them further advantages. But especially in the second half, they started defending the goal cushion too early, defending so deep – as they say in England – enabling Italy to find their pace and plays and the equaliser was a natural consequence.

"So Southgate was too conservative too soon.

"Mancini on the other hand was so good. All the subs proved him right. When he subbed [Nicolo] Barella I was expecting more [Manuel] Locatelli than [Bryan] Cristante, but he got that right too as the team kept their pace high, producing quality."

 

Former Italy forward Zola, who won 35 caps for the Azzurri, was surprised by how little influence England's Mason Mount had on the final.

Mount has been impressive in the Premier League for Chelsea, the club where Zola was such a favourite in a seven-year spell from 1996 to 2003.

But in 99 minutes of action against Italy, before being substituted, Mount had only 36 touches of the ball and completed just 15 of 22 passes for a 68.2 per cent success rate. All of Italy's starting XI had a higher percentage than Mount achieved, with Federico Chiesa's 77.8 per cent their lowest mark.

Chiesa was far more threatening than Mount, who was given an advanced midfield role by Southgate, operating just behind Harry Kane but barely having any influence on the game.

In 54 games for Chelsea last season, across all competitions, Mount scored nine goals, had eight assists and created 109 chances. The 22-year-old had one assist in 464 minutes of action at the Euros, creating eight chances over the tournament.

"For sure after what he had shown in the Premier League, in the Champions League and even in the friendlies ahead of the Euros, he didn't shine," Zola said.

"He is young and the long season with Chelsea where he always played may have had an impact on his sub-par performance. Yet, he is a very skilful player and this experience will help him become better and stronger.

"As I am told, he is a level-headed kind of guy so this experience will help him for sure."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.