Before the weekend Claudio Ranieri and his Palermo counterpart Delio Rossi both faced the line of questioning. Who would they rather have in their team: Roma's French playmaker, Jérémy Menez, or the Rosanero's Argentinian trequartista Javier Pastore?

Each manager, predictably enough, plumped for their own man, but that was just fine. The reporters were only really looking for a soundbite, something that would drop neatly into a story which was already half-written: the tale of a match-up between two of Serie A's most promising playmakers. Only the thing is that there weren't two such players on show on Sunday night at all. There were three.

At the Stadio Renzo Barbera, both Pastore and Menez sparkled intermittently. Menez led the Roma charge as they streamed forwards at the beginning of each half, while Pastore probed Roma's defence from his position behind the attack. The figures in Gazzetta dello Sport show the players completed five dribbles and three attempts on goal each. Pastore had 73 touches to his opponent's 67, but Menez hit back by completing one more positive pass. And in the goal column? A big fat zero for both.

Josip Ilicic, on the other hand, did get one. He got an assist, too, on Palermo's first, picking out Fabrizio Miccoli with a perfectly measured pass across Roma's penalty box. In fact, at the end of Palermo's 3-1 win he was named man-of-the-match by Gazzetta dello Sport. And Corriere dello Sport. And Sky Sport (and a few others besides). Not that he was out to prove a point, mind. Ilicic isn't upset at any perceived lack of respect. Frankly he doesn't think he deserves it.

"I'm not an important player for this team," he protested as journalists rushed to sing his praises at full-time. After all, how could he be? Palermo are one of the coming forces of Italian football, a side who finished fifth last season and have serious designs on breaking into the Champions League. Ilicic is just some kid who, four short months ago, was preparing to take on the Slovenian second division with Interblock Ljubljana, a team who had just been relegated and whose home ZSD Stadion has a capacity of less than 2,500.

And then things began to happen. In July he was sold to Maribor for €80,000. Suddenly he was playing in the Europa League, and doing so rather well. Sensing his moment, Ilicic's agent started sending out DVDs of the player in action. Palermo's sporting director Walter Sabatini (since departed) was so impressed that he insisted his club move for the player without having ever seen him in the flesh. A deal was in place before the two teams met in Europa League qualifying in late August.

This transfer was worth rather more – €2.2m – but Ilicic was not the sort to let that go to his head. When he discovered his name on the team-sheet for Palermo's game away to Brescia, the first fixture after his arrival, the player was genuinely startled. "I didn't believe my eyes," he gushed. "I didn't think that Delio Rossi would have had me play so soon, I was ready to wait."

Rossi wasn't. The manager was too excited by what he had seen during the Europa League meetings with Maribor (Ilicic had even scored during the second leg, though Palermo progressed comfortably enough in the end). An idea was forming in his mind of a team with two trequartistas – Ilicic and Pastore – behind a lone frontman. In a sense it was a practical solution – Palermo had sold perhaps their best striker, Edinson Cavani, to Napoli in the summer and were short up front with Miccoli still recovering from knee ligament damage – but it was certainly also a thrilling one.

It rapidly became more exciting. If Ilicic looked like a lost boy at times on his debut against Brescia, he was at least a resourceful one, asking his team-mates Federico Balzaretti and Antonio Nocerino for advice on his positioning every thirty seconds. In his second start, against Inter, he scored. Four days later, against Juventus, he did it again. And then he kept scoring (and some of them have been pretty tidy, too). His strike against Roma was his sixth of the campaign.

In a team already brimming with creativity, Ilicic had added another edge. At 6ft 3in and with deceptively broad shoulders the Slovenian offers a rare physicality at his position, prompting Gazzetta dello Sport to describe him as a "ballerina with the physique of a boxer". With his youth, too, comes an impressive energy, neatly summed up by the manner in which he celebrates his goals, careering around the pitch with his hands clasped in cheesy yet sweetly sincere heart-shaped tribute to his girlfriend.

For Palermo to fulfil their potential, of course, they must also learn to be clinical in front of goal and, in that regard, the return of Miccoli is also a huge boost. Abel Hernández has the size and strength to lead the line, but not the coolness in the finish. In three starts since returning from injury, Miccoli has scored twice and registered an assist. Palermo have won all three of those games to climb to sixth, one point ahead of Roma and one below the Champions League places.

But we already knew about Miccoli, and indeed Pastore. "Ilicic is as decisive as both of them," insisted Rossi yesterday. "The only difference is that people talk about them a lot, whereas Ilicic still isn't in the spotlight." Given the owner Maurizio Zamparini's track record of selling off talents that have achieved a good market value, Rossi might do well to keep it quiet a bit longer yet.

Talking points

• Francesco Totti, incidentally, got his first Serie A goal from open play since May against Palermo. Seeing as it arrived in the final minute of second-half injury-time, you probably won't be surprised to hear he didn't celebrate.

• Milan, Juventus and Lazio all drew 1-1, while Napoli and Roma both lost, meaning Inter were able to make up some ground as they thumped Parma 5-2. I say "thumped", but in reality this was hardly a thrashing – Parma giving as good as they got and in fact managing more shots on target (seven, plus two more against the woodwork, to Inter's six). That Inter should take their chances so efficiently might seem strange given the absences of Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito, but it has been noted that both players were missing when they beat Genoa 5-0 last season too. It is altogether less surprising that the returns to fitness and form of Dejan Stankovic, Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta should provide a boost.

• Marco Materazzi, incidentally, was awful at centre-back again for Inter and it seems increasingly certain that the club will move to bring Andrea Ranocchia in from his co-ownership with Genoa in January. The latest reports suggest McDonald Mariga could be used as a makeweight.

• The latest twist in the Bologna ownership shambles? Sheffield Wednesday suitor Milan Mandaric is said to be interested in buying the club. "Italian football fascinates me," he was quoted as saying in Sunday's Gazzetta. Then again, the same report made reference at one point to "the Tottenham manager Terry Redknapp".

• Just like last season, Antonio Di Natale got a hat-trick against Napoli, the team he supported as a boy growing up in Naples. He declined to celebrate, but he would have had every right to – the second was an absolute peach, placed where the goalkeeper had no hope of getting it from outside the area, and the third came direct from a corner.

• Will Lecce's Luigi De Canio be the next Serie A manager to go? It looked that way when the team's president Pierandrea Semeraro showed up for the team's post-game press conference after their 3-2 defeat to Cagliari, but Semeraro said that no decision had been taken. De Canio then claimed he had offered his resignation but had it refused … for now. Further developments are expected on Tuesday.

Results: Bari 1-1 Cesena, Bologna v Chievo – postponed due to snow, Brescia 0-0 Genoa, Cagliari 3-2 Lecce, Inter 5-2 Parma, Juventus 1-1 Fiorentina, Lazio 1-1 Catania, Palermo 3-1 Napoli, Sampdoria 1-1 Milan, Udinese 3-1 Napoli.

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