Italian Centurion: Why Antonio Di Natale Could Be Italy's Saviour
Asking your average football fan who doesn't follow Serie A closely to name Italy's top strikers will generally produce the usual names: Totti, Del Piero, Inzaghi. Some may mention Luca Toni (though his poor showing at Euro 2008 caused many to dismiss him as a top striker), some others even Alberto Gilardino. Very rarely, however, will they mention the name of Antonio Di Natale. And yet they would be missing out one of the very best, as was proven this weekend as the little man from Naples has just added his name to a very exclusive list of players to have scored more than 100 goals in Serie A.
His profile has undoubtedly been harmed by the fact that he has never played for one of the big clubs, but make no mistake, Totò is a top player. Only 5' 7, he is a classic second striker, able to run at men and beat them when necessary, but also as capable of scoring a great goal as setting up a team-mate with an easy finish. His abilities at present are arguably second to none in Italy, as his position at the top of the goalscoring charts attests - he sits atop the capocannonieri rankings with 28 goals, and there is still a game to play. To put that figure in perspective, since 1960 when Omar Sivori matched that figure for Juventus, only Luca Toni has scored more in a Serie A season with his magnificent tally of 31 in 2006. At present even the magnificent Milito is seven goals behind him in the charts.
Starting his career at Empoli, Di Natale wasn't noticed by the Italy youth teams, though he began to score with enough regularity to gain a few Azzurri caps in friendly matches under Giovanni Trapattoni. It was only when he moved to Udinese in 2004, however, that his career really took off. He formed a devastating partnership with Vincenzo Iaquinta, the two combining to take le zebrette into the Champions League the following season, though it was his taller colleague who Marcello Lippi preferred for the 2006 World Cup squad.
Di Natale's form was consistent enough to get him noticed by Roberto Donadoni when the former Milan great took charge of the Azzurri, and Totò became a key figure in the team, scoring some vital goals, including two goals in Kiev against Ukraine in a key qualifying fixture.
Unfortunately for him and the Azzurri faithful, he didn't perform as well at Euro 2008, including missing a penalty against Spain the quarter final, though his cause was not helped by Donadoni's constant chopping and changing of the team.
Many commentators thought Lippi's return to the helm might see an end to Di Natale's Azzurri career, but once again he has proven himself to be vital, saving Lippi's skin with an injury time winner in Cyprus in the manager's first competitive match back in charge.
Arguably in fact he has only improved since then - with Iaquinta's departure for Juve, he became the main man at Udinese and revelled in the role. Always a man with an eye for goal, he began to score even more frequently, with seventeen in the first post-Iaquinta season, followed by twelve in an injury shortened season last year, followed by this year's record-breaking feats.
But it is not just the number of goals that he scores that is impressive - it is the manner of them. They vary from spectacular long range efforts to nuanced pieces of skill and delicate finishes that any player in world football would be proud of.
He also displayed his loyalty and humility when was asked this week if he was upset at never having played for one of the big clubs, and whether he felt his goals were 'wasted' on Udinese. "Maybe they are," he joked, before adding, "But in reality it is an honour that my goals have contributed to keeping Udinese up."
Heading into the World Cup, there are many who argue that in the absence of a Totti or a Cassano, Italy are lacking a creative spark up front. Obviously they have never seen the little man from Naples. If Lippi can show faith in him, Totò could live up to his name and deliver a very early Christmas present to the Azzurri faithful.
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