There was a certain inevitably as to the identity of the opening two goal-scorers in Sunday’s meeting between Udinese and Torino. With Udinese’s lethal strike-force of 2007-2009 reunited at the Stadio Fruili, albeit on opposing teams, it was no surprise to see Fabio Quagliarella’s 15th minute opener cancelled out almost immediately by Antonio Di Natale. It would take the pair of evergreen strikers, at a combined age of 69, up to 10 goals each, just five goals behind Serie A’s leading scorer Carlos Tevez.
Such was the brilliance of Di Natale’s performance, named man of the match as he also assisted Molla Wague’s winner, his coach Andrea Stramaccioni issued a plea to his 37 year old frontman to reconsider his end of season retirement plans. “It makes no sense to retire now and I will try to convince him with these remaining games” he said, “He can’t be a player for 38 matches per season, but in 20 he still makes the difference.”
That Di Natale remains so integral to Udinese after 409 games for the club over a spell that is now into its eleventh season is both suggestive of the Zebrette’s failure to find a replacement and the brilliance of the striker who is seventh on the Serie A all-time top scorers list with 203 goals from 411 league appearances. The erstwhile striker is current top-scorer for Stramaccioni’s side with 10 and is also the leading assist-maker with 5, having failed to start just 5 of Udinese’s 25 league games so far.
Di Natale is a relative late-comer to prolific goal-scoring, previously tallying as much as 17 before the 29 he registered in 2009-10 began four straight seasons where he would manage in excess of 20 league goals as Udinese would break into the Serie A top 4 under Francesco Guidolin.
As he entered into his 30s, the age when many strikers see their goal-scoring powers begin to wane, Di Natale would thrive, hitting 67 league goals in 85 matches between August 2009 and December 2011. That was as many goals as he had managed in his previous six seasons.
Many would put his sudden conversion into such a potent striker to Guidolin’s introduction of the 3-4-3 and the ruthlessly efficient counter-attacking system that he preached. Though more of a cause was his conversion from a winger, he was often perceived as being too small to play the role as a centre-forward, after the departure of Quagliarella to Napoli in 2009.
“Playing in a more central role, he didn’t have to do the work that wide men are required to do, so he is sharper in front of goal” said the then-Udinese coach Pasquale Marino. What followed was successive capocannonieri (Serie A top-scorer) awards for 2010 and 2011 and the Italian Player of the Year award for 2010.
Quagliarella, who hasn’t quite managed to replicate the same kind of form that saw him plunder 21 goals for Udinese in 2008-09, has seen his career path take a slightly different path to his former team-mate’s but he remains as equally important to his club as he enters the autumn of his nomadic career.
Now in his third spell with Torino, the club he started out with in 1999, the 32 year old is also top-scorer with 10 and a regular face in Giampiero Ventura’s side that sits 7th in Serie A after going 12 games unbeaten, a sequence broken at the weekend by Di Natale and Udinese.
Four more goals have come in the Europa League where Torino are preparing to face Zenit St Petersburg in the quarter-finals and his total of 36 appearances so far (he has failed to start just 1 of Torino’s 26 league matches) marks his highest amount of appearances since managing the same number for Napoli in 2009-10.
Despite a trio of Serie A titles, the striker would experience 4 underwhelming years at Juventus on a personal level, only managing as much as 23 league goals from a total of 83 games and would find himself overshadowed by the likes of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Mirko Vucinic; his resurgence at Torino resembles a Quagliarella reborn. He would also make a return to the Italy squad last September after an absence of four years, earning a call from his former Juventus boss Antonio Conte.
The race will be on now to see who finishes on top of the scoring battle between the former Udinese teammates and they are both one goal behind another veteran in Verona’s 37 year old Luca Toni. In fact, Serie A is proving an appealing place to go for an ageing striker with Tevez leading the charts at 31, the 36 year old Miroslav Klose has 8 for Lazio and Massimo Maccarone has 7 for Empoli at 35. The 38 year old Francesco Totti meanwhile, second on the all-time Serie A scorer’s list with 240, has 5 and remains central to Roma’s challenge at the top of the division.
One may offer a series of reasons for why the elderly strikers are still going strong in Serie A including a slower style of play, a declining standard and deeper defensive lines leading to a lower reliance on attacking pace, but much more likely, perhaps with Quagliarella and definitely in the case of Di Natale, it can be put down to class that time just can’t erode.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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