Player Focus: Antonio Di Natale

by Back Page Football

Italy head to South Africa looking to defend their World Cup title, and David Roberts looks at one of the men that could be leading the line for the Azzurri.

In a season of surprises where some of the biggest names in Italian football are absent from the top scorers list, it is instead Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale who leads the chart, and looks set to stay at the top as the Italian season enters the final straight. But can the diminutive forward continue his excellent form into the upcoming World Cup to turn the Italian National side back to the winning machine that won the greatest prize in Germany four years ago?

Always regarded as a player with a great deal of natural ability, the Naples born forward has been a late developer by traditional football standards, only now fully realising his potential at the age of 32. He debuted for Italy in late November 2002 aged 25, but failed to establish himself as a regular member of the squad, restricted to making the occasional appearances in friendlies, until 2007, where he began to represent his country in the Euro 2008 qualification matches, including scoring goals in each half of the hard-fought and crucial win against the Ukraine, and was chosen by Roberto Donadoni to travel with Italy to the competition in Austria and Switzerland. He had a fairly quiet tournament however, and missed a vital penalty in the shoot-out loss to Spain at the quarter-final stage.

His club career has also been a mixed bag at times – impressing early on in his career at Empoli after loan spells at Varese and Viareggio, so much so that he earnt his first Azzuri call-up. However, despite his fine performances, Empoli were relegated in 2004, but such was his reputation, Di Natale found no problems finding a new employer in Italy’s top division, moving that summer to Udinese, where he has stayed through to now.

A player with a knack for scoring spectacular goals, two of the best were both his terrific strikes against Reggina in 2007, one a lob of a seemingly impossible angle, and the other a thunderous volley. Always a thrilling and unpredictable player to watch, Di Natale’s incredible turn of pace, creatively, mazy dribbles and astounding goals have led him to be a firm favourite at the Stadio Friuli, and was made captain of the club, thought to be the second-oldest in Italy, in 2007.

2007 was Di Natale’s real breakthrough year, as he formed a formidable partnership with compatriot Fabio Quagliarella. He became much more aggressive, and the results paid dividends, as he amassed 17 goals in 2007/2008. Although last season was slower due to an injury sustained playing for Italy, this season has proved to be a fruitful one for a man who will be no doubt vital to Italy if they are to retain the World Cup in South Africa later this year. The 32-year-old has netted 22 times in 27 starts in Serie A this season, as well as contributing 5 assists, a fantastic total for a side who, being placed 15th in the table, are falling well below where they wanted to be this season. Without Di Natale’s class, they could well have been staring relegation in the face.

As well as being vitally important to Udinese’s league hopes, he is becoming increasingly important for his national side, who are somewhat stumbling along in recent years, far from looking like the accomplished unit which took on the world four years ago, turned out from mind-numbingly boring and uninspiring games both at Euro 2008 and last year’s Confederations Cup. Now even with the same coach who won that World Cup back at the helm, Marcello Lippi, after Roberto Donadoni’s ill-fated stint in charge, Italy are looking like they need some sort of inspiration from somewhere, as the team looks one-paced. Ironically, in a team which has been criticised so heavily for not blooding youngsters and trying new talent, it could be the 32-year-old Di Natale who provides the Azzuri with the spark which gets everything going for them. A lack of creativity and pace seems to be the problem at times for Italy; they are too predictable and slow that the opposition can prepare too easily to stop them. But as have already been stated, creativity and pace are two qualities the Udinese skipper has in abundance.

These two components are key to any side, and if you look through the other outfits serious about winning the tournament, they have a player with that spark; Brazil have Kaka, Portugal have Ronaldo, Argentina have Messi, France have Ribery, England have Rooney, and Spain have Torres amongst others. What Italy need is a player such as this to play a more important role in the team, that is not hiding out wide on the wing so the game may bypass them, but thrust into the centre of the field, into the thick of the action, to create things from a central role, a place where they can pick the ball up with much greater ease and influence the game in a more profound way. The defensive base is there for Italy, with some top class defenders and defensive midfielders available for selection, they have players who can hold on to the ball such as Pirlo, and top class finishers such as Gilardino, but at the moment there seems to be no element of fantasy or magic, which, even in sides determined to grind out 1-0 wins, is essential to create that one goal necessary for victory.

With Antonio Cassano of Sampdoria, another extremely unpredictably brilliant talent who could light up any side, firmly shunted out of contention by Lippi, as well as other creative influences Mario Balotelli and Francesco Totti unable to make the final cut, there are precious few option available who have top class experience and pedigree when it comes to providing the spark needed to wedge open a tight defence in a crucial World Cup match. Giuseppe Rossi doesn’t have this experience, and having never played in a tournament such as this before, placing him in such a key role in such a pressure situation would be an incredible gamble to take. Di Natale could fit this role perfectly however; he has a wealth of experience, having played at the top level in Italy for a decade now, including previous international tournaments and European campaigns such as Udinese’s last season in the now defunct UEFA Cup.

Although he stands at only 5ft 7, he isn’t weedy and can hold his own against brutish defenders in the middle of the park, and has been previously stated, he has the creative spark and change of pace on which a game can turn, especially ones as close as the matches in the World Cup are bound to be. Chances can be few and far between, so a player such as this who can fashion something out of nothing can be vital. Also, being the captain of Udinese, he can lead players and is used to pressurized situations, being an excellent penalty taker, despite his miss in the Euros. Every great penalty taker misses occasionally; just ask previous Italian legend Roberto Baggio.

The once-paced, predictable Azzuri need an instinctive, fast-paced spark to set them on fire. At a time as big as the World Cup, big players like this are needed and great names as forged. It’s time Di Natale proved himself to be one of them.

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