Udinese's Prolific Antonio Di Natale Deserves a Lot More Credit
In a cold Stadio Friuli, Udinese beat Siena 1-0 at home and for once, Antonio Di Natale was not the hero. No, the Zebrette's saviour on that rarest of occasion when Toto was not his usual lethal self in front of goal, was Luis Muriel.
The 21-year-old Columbian striker did well to slot it past Gianluca Pegolo in the Siena goal, and has had his fine performances in the Udinese shirt this season—since returning from loan at Lecce—rewarded with a contract extension. But while the deal states that he'll stay in Friuli until 2017, the gamblers out there won't be laying many bets on him seeing it through.
That's because Udinese, probably Serie A's best talent factory in recent years, is a selling club. Every year a new star or two come along, and every year they're sold to the highest bidder.
In the last two years alone, they've let go of enough players to make the bones of a championship-winning team. To name but a few examples: Samir Handanovic is now between the sticks at Inter. Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah went off hand-in-hand to Juventus. Gokhan Inler is pulling strings in the Napoli midfield. And the jewel in the crown, Alexis Sanchez? Why he's enjoying the sunshine in Barcelona, of course.
Almost as soon as a player starts to shine in the white-and-black stripes, it seems, they're out looking for potential buyers. The one exception to the rule? Antonio Di Natale.
Giampaolo Pozzo's work in creating a solid, consistently over-pefroming and financially stable club in the north-easternmost tip of Italy should be applauded. After a troubled start to his ownership back in the 1980s—the team were embroiled in a nasty betting scandal that saw them disgraced and relegated in 1987—the entrepreneur has made them a key player in Italian football.
But the business-first focus of the man, who also owns Granada in Spain and Watford in England, has undoubtedly held Udinese back. In fact, it would probably have all but crippled them were it not for the efforts of Di Natale.
He might be 35, but Toto seems to get better with age. Or at least he's not looking any worse for wear. Even when coach Francesco Guidolin plays him not fully fit, the energetic native of Naples puts in a fine shift—and more often than not, wins the game.
It's this over-reliance on Antonio that should worry fans of Udinese, Italy's second oldest football club. His goals have disguised the flaws in Pozzo's prudent financial approach, by providing apparent proof that the players off-loaded weren't needed in the first place.
But take Toto out of the equation and Udinese looks like a very different proposition. In 2011-12, the Zebrette scored 52 goals in the league. Di Natale scored 23 of them. The season before, 28 of their 65 goals came from the striker.
Both times they finished in the Champions League places. But if you look back to 2009-10, when Udinese scored 54 and conceded 59, they finished in 15th—nine points above relegation. Take away Di Natale's Capocannoniere-winning 29 goals and they'd have been a lot worse off.
Udinese have been relying on his goals for too long now; playing a dangerous game of chicken with a nose-dive down the table. Because if the ageing striker suffers a dip in form, or worse, an injury, there'll be some big shoes to fill up front.
Returns of 23, 28 or even 29 goals in the league might not seem out of the ordinary when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are scoring 46 and 50 goals a season in Spain. But look at it in perspective.
The Portuguese's 46 strikes last season made up just 38% of Real Madrid's total of a staggering 121 in the league. Even Messi's fine 50 is only 43% of Barcelona's 114 for the term.
Then the Spanish champions and their great Catalan rivals finished with goal differences of +89 and +85 respectively. No question about it, the two greatest players in the world right now had a massive part in it all, but they weren't the only ones carrying the can.
No Di Natale last season, or the season before, and Udinese would have been in negative goal difference and a lot farther down the table. And with 14 league goals this season, he's only one goal shy of the highly-touted Stephan El Shaarawy at Milan, despite playing three fewer games.
Toto isn't Messi, Ronaldo or maybe even El Shaarawy. And at his age, he's not going to win any major titles or trouble the youngsters come Player-of-the-Year time. But as a lethal striker in front of goal, a versatile and selfless team player, a key part of an attractive footballing set-up and an all-around nice guy, Di Natale should be hailed and enjoyed by football fans everywhere for as long as he can keep going.
And for the sake of Udinese's fans, let's just hope that's another while yet.
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