Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Del Piero's fear of Christmas
Antonio Di Natale's surname offers an unfortunate variety of opportunities for headline writers.
Natale, in Italian, means Christmas, so gems such as Regalo Di Natale, Christmas Gift, or Prodezza Di Natale, Christmas Feat, may slap you in the face at any time, and anyway the journalistic world has seen worse things.
While it may not be Christmas time yet, it is definitely a time for the Udinese forward to shine.
Having turned 29 on October 13, Di Natale can hardly be seen as a promising youngster trying to force his way into his club's or the Azzurri side, not least because he won the first of his six caps back in November 2002, but the last couple of weeks have seen his name rise to prominence for both Udinese and Italy.
His success has striken a weird contrast with the plight of the player he replaced for the national team in the first of the two October matches, Alessandro Del Piero.
Called up by national team coach Roberto Donadoni for the second time for the Euro 2008 qualifying double against Ukraine and Georgia, he impressed in training and while everyone expected his former strike partner with Udinese and current Palermo star, David Di Michele, to receive consideration as the first player off the bench against Ukraine on October 7, it was Di Natale who replaced Del Piero after 62 minutes and promplty managed to turn the game around.
And while he made no direct contribution to Italy's opening goal, a Massimo Oddo penalty after Luca Toni had been wrestled to the ground while trying to go for the Lazio full-back's right wing cross, Toni's left-footed thunder for the 2-0 was made by Di Natale with the cheek and vision that have become his trademarks.
Receiving the ball on the left flank, Di Natale turned inside and unleashed a wonderful, inch-perfect 35-yard crossfield pass with his favourite right foot into the path of Toni, who almost messed it up with a first touch that took the ball backwards, only to recover his composure and fire home before his marker could stick a foot in.
Not many, in the aftermath of Toni's celebration, had the presence of mind to congratulate Di Natale for his game-breaking istincts, but Donadoni, obviously, was watching carefully, and when Italy took the pitch four days later in Georgia's Paichadze Stadium, Di Natale was among the starters in Italy's 4-1-4-1 formation; yet another change for Donadoni who has so far used a different side each time.
It had been 4-3-3 against Ukraine, Toni at the center of a three-pronged Iaquinta-Toni-Del Piero forward line, while in Georgia Toni was the lone striker, supported, right to left, by Camoranesi, Perrotta, Pirlo and Di Natale.
The Udinese forward provided Toni with a couple of smart passes, which the Fiorentina forward did not put away, then sent a perfect cross from the left wing for Camoranesi's header which put Italy ahead 2-1 and put Zambrotta away for the Barcellona full-back to cross the ball which led to Perrotta's third.
All the while, Del Piero, who had been given a triumphant reception by hundreds of Georgian fans who consider him the biggest name in Italian football, was steaming in the stands, watching from afar as his team-mates were clearly doing well enough, albeit not fantastically, without him.
Someone in the pompous Italian daily press wrote that keeping Del Piero out of the side altogether was 'an insult to football'. But while Italy's struggle to overcome Georgia proved that Donadoni's choice was not the brightest - away wins in tough places like Tblisi should not be dismissed as easy, though - it is becoming increasingly hard to keep a straight face while campaigning for Del Piero to start for Italy.
A lovely person and without doubt one of the good guys in football, Del Piero has struggled to accept a diminished role for club and country.
Fabio Capello, famously, took him off 27 times during the 2004-05 season with Juventus and repeatedly said he considered Del Piero just another player, not someone who deserved to be a starter on reputation, and the pattern was not much different last season, as Capello clearly showed David Trezeguet and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were his preferred pair up front, a choice which results on the pitch - before the Moggi scandal wiped off scudettos and kudos - proved to be right.
With Italy, at the World Cup, Del Piero esperienced a deja vu when Marcello Lippi, who'd of course coached him at Juventus, also rated him as no more than a squad player, starting him only against Australia, when he had a good first half on the left side of a 4-3-3, one of his few stretches of brillance in the whole month.
When Del Piero put Italy 2-0 ahead against Germany in the semi-final with a brilliantly weighted right footer in the dying seconds, his celebration smacked of joy and unhindered frustration at the same time, as he punched the air and kicked the advertisement boardings vehemently.
He was back on the bench for the final, coming on four minutes from time. He did little from open play but scored his penalty with poise and precision in the shoot-out, thus making an unforgettable contribution to Italy's title.
But he not been completely happy playing for Juventus in Serie B during the current season. Having etched his name in the history of Juve by accepting to stay despite the club's demotion to the second division, he was looking forward to an uninterrupted run in the side. He has enjoyed that, but he has also scored only twice so far and was clearly disappointed at being replaced at Piacenza a couple of weeks ago when he was trying to score his 200th goal for Juventus.
This swapnover of sorts between Del Piero and Di Natale has intrigued many. Despite being only three years younger than his Juve counterpart, Di Natale has revealed he used to idolize him while coming through the ranks at Empoli and displaying the first signs of the sort of talent that should have propelled him to the top much earlier.
On Sunday, curiosity to see how the notoriously erratic Di Natale would do on his return to league football after his success with the Azzurri brought me to Parma, where Udinese were trying to keep the pace that had taken them close to the top of the table.
I was not disappointed, at least not by Di Natale, who appears rejuvenated after a torrid time last year under Serse Cosmi, who did not like to play three forwards and often clashed with whichever he left out between Di Natale and Di Michele.
At one point, both of them had to publicly apologize to their manager after making rude gestures towards him in a Champions League match, but this show of solidarity, which looked suspiciously like a good photo opportunity, was not enough to save Cosmi, who was replaced by Galeone before the season's end.
Parma, like most lowly sides, must survive each season with hand-me-downs from the bigger clubs, adding them to an established albeit smallish base of players from the previous campaign and hoping they gel before it's too late.
The summer losses were huge, but then again the club needed the money: Fabio Simplicio and Mark Bresciano joined Palermo, Daniele Bonera departed for Milan, Marco Marchionni left for Juventus, Bernardo Corradi, once his loan period ended, went back to Valencia then Manchester City and a clearly undermanned side got off to the worst Serie A start in the history of Parma, one single point in five matches and four losses in a row since the opening day draw at Torino.
On Sunday, again, they were no match to their opponents, who went 2-0 up before a quarter of an hour had elapsed and threatened to run up the score whenever the ball reached one of their three forwards.
Di Natale, as always, started on the left supporting central striker Iaquinta, but soon switched flanks with Asamoah Gyan, and everything they did appeared to confuse the Parma defenders, who enjoyed little protection from the midfield duo of Vincenzo Grella and Jorge Bolano.
Di Natale did not have many touches, but most of them reflected his class and his current form. The gem came on 66 minutes, when from basically a standing position on the left side of the penalty area he delicately lifted the ball into the path of Iaquinta, who poked it past goalkeeper Alfonso De Lucia for the final score in a match that had everything, including a heart scare for Galeone, who was taken to the hospital before then released.
There was also a brawl in front of the benches as Muntari and Paci clashed. Muntari slapped his opponent, who obliged by nosediving to the ground. A free-for-all ensued, which resulted in referee Luca Palanca showing Muntari a red card. That while entering the tunnel Muntari showed the hostile crowd his middle finger did not make things worse only because there was a finger on either side of that, a total of three reminding the home fans what the score was at the time.
While all of this was going on, Del Piero was waiting to play on Monday night for Juventus in Treviso, which is home for him. Del Piero grew up in San Vendemiano, only a few miles from the sweet little town just north-east of Venice, and was recently honoured with a special homecoming party, more like a lovefest, which attracted thousands of fans and well-wishers.
On Monday night, though, Del Piero failed to score despite creating a few chances for himself. Juventus won 1-0 and kept up their quest to gain promotion at the first attempt despite the 17-point deduction.
One has to wonder whether getting that elusive 200th goal and leading Juventus back to Serie A is all that is left to do for him this season, while Di Natale chips and flicks his way towards a starting job for Italy or, as it's been increasingly whispered, a move to Milan in January.
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