Roberto De Zerbi claims Lewis Dunk is capable of playing Champions League football as he likened the devotion of Brighton’s long-serving skipper to that of Roma great Francesco Totti.
Seagulls centre-back Dunk is poised to make his 400th appearance for his hometown team in Tuesday evening’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Stoke.
Italy World Cup winner Totti turned down a move to Real Madrid in favour of spending his entire career with his boyhood side Roma before retiring in 2017.
Albion boss De Zerbi, a former Serie A opponent of Totti’s, is surprised one-time England international Dunk has not been poached by a leading Premier League rival.
And, ahead of a milestone occasion, the Italian coach expressed his admiration for the 31-year-old defender’s loyalty to the Sussex club.
“I can understand him because I am fan of Brescia and Brescia is a small club and my dream always was to play in my team,” said De Zerbi.
“I think it’s different to win in Brighton, to play in Brighton for him. It’s an honour for him.
“Totti played in Roma and he could play in Real Madrid, in another team. But he wanted to stay in his town, in his team and I agree with them – with Totti and Lewis Dunk.
“If I have to give one opinion about Lewis, I think he could play in Champions League, in Europa League, he could play different competitions.”
Dunk made his Brighton debut in 2010 and played a key role in helping the club rise from League One to their current position chasing European qualification.
He looked set to leave the Amex Stadium in 2015 after handing in a transfer request amid interest from Fulham, who, back then, were in the second tier alongside Albion.
Yet, despite being capped by his country in 2018 and regularly impressing on the south coast, Dunk has never come close to joining a top-flight rival.
Aside from a brief loan stint at Bristol City a decade ago, he has spent his whole career with the Seagulls, scoring 26 goals.
“For me it’s difficult to understand how he has never played for a big team in the Premier League,” said De Zerbi.
“If you ask me what I think about Dunk, I think he’s one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League.
“This is my opinion but I know well his potential, his standard of performances.
“I can’t take (pick out) only one quality. He’s a very big personality on the pitch. He’s a good guy.
“In the training ground, I observe every day my players and he helps always the young players to understand, to work much more inside of Brighton’s environment.
“And, if you speak about Dunk as a player, the personality, the technical quality and the power, he’s complete.”
De Zerbi intends to start his captain in the midweek cup clash against Championship opposition at the bet365 Stadium.
The former Shakhtar Donetsk coach is eager to avoid another upset at the hands of lower-league opposition as he targets a trip to Wembley.
“For us, the FA Cup is very important,” said De Zerbi, whose side were dumped out of the Carabao Cup by League One side Charlton in December.
“Tomorrow is not an important game, it’s a crucial game because we want to arrive in Wembley to play the semi-final.
“OK, there will be another game (quarter-final) if we win tomorrow but we have to stay focused on only Stoke.
“We know very well what happened in the Charlton game. We remember very well.”