Antonio Di Natale was the last Italian player to touch the ball at Euro 2008. It wasn’t a happy memory for himself or the country as a whole. His failure to slot home during the Vienna shoot-out gave Cesc Fabregas the opportunity to put Spain into the semi-finals and he, unlike the Udinese striker, didn’t miss.
On Sunday, it will be Spain again for Italy and Di Natale as Group C kicks off with an intriguing clash between the tournament favourites and a wounded Azzurri who have their clear problems in attack. This, after all, is a side who haven’t scored an international goal since Giampaolo Pazzini netted in the 2-0 friendly win in Poland. That was four games, seven months and 300 minutes ago.
There is little doubt that it is in attack where Prandelli’s preparations have been most affected by injuries. Having struck upon a first-choice combination of Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi in qualifying, the Coach had to revamp his plans after Villarreal’s Rossi snapped knee ligaments and the Milan man was forced to have minor heart surgery.
With no guarantee that either would be back in time for the competition, Prandelli assessed his options and once again opened the door for Toto Di Natale in late 2011. Although injury ruled him out of February’s 1-0 loss to America, the 34-year-old was included in the squad last month – given the unavailability of Rossi – despite never previously being selected by Prandelli. “Tell me if there is a player who deserved a call-up more than Di Natale,” the CT stated when asked to justify his selections.
The Coach, in his defence, had always insisted that he had no need to take a closer look at the former Empoli man. Prandelli pointed doubters towards the player’s recent scoring record at Udinese, one that illustrates that he has celebrated 109 goals in 165 League games over the last five seasons. In 2010 he was the most prolific player in the Italian game, while he was the third-most lethal in both 2011 and 2012.
Di Natale, however, is not immune from criticism or scepticism. While nobody can doubt his achievements in front of goal at the Stadio Friuli, one can question his impact on the international scene. They can also argue that he is too old to make a consistent contribution at a competition, like a European Championship, where there is little recovery time between games.
The Udine idol won his 37th cap on Friday night when he came on as a second half substitute for Cassano in the 3-0 loss to Russia. It was his first appearance in Italy blue since the 3-2 loss to Slovakia at the 2010 World Cup which resulted in first round humiliation for the then reigning champions.
Up to now, his record of 10 goals may be seen as respectable by some, but you need to look a little deeper into the numbers which underline that Di Natale has never been significant for his country. His strikes have only come in seven different games and he’s only scored once in his last 15 appearances. He’s also completed 90 minutes for his country just nine times and has been hauled off on 15 others.
It is when you consider such a backdrop that it becomes clear that Di Natale is going to have to dig very deep if he is to make any sort of impact at the championship. Anything less and Euro 2012 – indisputably his last chance at international recognition – could end as disappointingly as Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010.