When Alberto Gilardino scored the late, late equaliser against the Republic of Ireland on Saturday evening, he not only secured the reigning world champion's spot at next year's World Cup in South Africa, but he underlined his claim to be the number one choice to lead the Azzurri attack.
It wasn't a breathtaking piece of skill or a power shot, but like many great strikers, "il Gila", as he is known in Italy, was in the right place at the right time, and calmly sent Shay Given the wrong way to send his teammates into raptures and momentarily silence the 75,000 strong Irish crowd. He has been criticised in the past for not scoring goals in important matches, but as he himself said, "this was the most important goal in my career with the Italy jersey." It was his 13th goal in 37 appearances, and his 12th for Italy under Lippi. No other striker has scored more for Lippi as Italy manager.
And yet it has been a constant struggle for the striker from Biella. Despite being the all time top goalscorer for the U21s (19 goals in 30 appearances), and holding an impressive goalscoring record at club level (108 goals in 231 appearances since his move to Parma in 2002) it seems he has never convinced many of the pundits and fans of the game.
He was a sensation at Parma when he finally broke into the first team in the 2003/2004 season, leading many to call for his inclusion in the Euro 2004 squad but was ignored by the man then in charge, Giovanni Trapattoni, ironically the man who now manages the Irish team that Gilardino consigned to the playoffs. Another successful season at Parma followed, leading to a big money move to Milan, where he scored 17 Serie A goals in his first season - not a bad return by any estimation. However, something wasn't right - the sometimes fickle Milan fans remained to be convinced by him, preferring their idols Inzaghi and Shevchenko, and the next two seasons saw him become a bit part player (albeit with some highlights, such as a sensational finish against Manchester United in the Champions League semi final that helped his team en route to the trophy, not to mention scoring one goal in the 2006 World Cup winning campaign for his country).
What was becoming apparent though was that il Gila was a man who needed consistency. He needed to feel the support of his manager and the team. The man who knew this best was Cesare Prandelli, who had given him his chance at Parma, and who was now Fiorentina manager. He persuaded the Viola board that Gilardino was the man they were missing up front, signing him and playing him with consistency. Gilardino returned the favour with a fine season, scoring 18 goals in all competitions for them. He has continued this form this season, scoring 4 in 10 for them so far (it would be 5 but for a "ghost" goal against Lazio that crossed the line but was not given).
At national level, his return is perhaps less good, but many of his caps have come as a substitute for a few minutes here and there and he has rarely been given a consistent run in the team. It is noteworthy that when he first broke into the Azzurri he played with consistency and in return scored a goal every second game. However, since that bright start, he has been confined to a bit part role, rarely starting - and rarely being allowed to finish when he does. Like all strikers, there is no doubt he can have anonymous games, working tirelessly for little reward, but equally there is no doubting his ability to finish, nor to lead the line. He holds the ball up well and brings his teammates into play, and if he gets a chance he can finish with either foot or his head.
Perhaps the goal against Ireland, and the finish reminiscent of Paolo Rossi, can silence the naysayers and convince Marcello Lippi to give him a run in the team. For an Italy team that has had recent struggles with goalscoring, this Gila Monster could be an invaluable asset.
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