Gabriel Silva was there, on the left-hand side. A quick exchange of passes saw the Brazilian on the byline with very little on. In the corner of the 21-year-old’s eye though, he was there – like he always is. The Grand Old Man of the Stadio Friuli was stalking the penalty box, looking for an opportunity, any sniff at goal.
A looping cross came over from the youngster, leaving two Lazio defenders stranded, and with one turn of the body, Antonio Di Natale scissor-kicked a leaping volley into the ground and past Federico Marchetti.
It was the only goal of the game on Saturday as Udinese beat the capital club to lift themselves, momentarily at least, into sixth place and as a result a potential Europa League spot. It seemed impossible at Christmas, but the Zebrette are coming up from the outside to challenge for a top five place.
“Di Natale is a rare animal who can do things normal people cannot,” Coach Francesco Guidolin told reporters after the game yesterday.“He's a great player. I've never had one like him. I need him fresh in the box, so we can’t make him run too hard.”
It is a sentiment echoed by everyone who has worked with the forward over the years and speaks volumes of a man genuinely in love with his surroundings. If Barcelona are ‘Mas que un Club’ then Toto is certainly more than your average footballer.
No player in Italy has scored more goals over the past five years than the 35-year-old. For the past three seasons he’s scored 20 or more goals every time, and he’s set to make it four on the bounce with just two more strikes needed this time around. He was Capocannoniere in 2010 and 2011 – over Francesco Totti, over Zlatan Ibrahimovic, becoming the first player since Beppe Signori in the early nineties to achieve a Double. He was Italian Footballer of the Year for 2010 and he’s netted 170 times in Serie A – the 13th most ever.
All this for a tiny, provincial club in the misty north-east. Juventus have come calling on at least one occasion, but Di Natale has never sought the money or the fame that playing for one of Europe’s major teams brings. He said ‘no’ to the Old Lady – and that’s only endeared him more to the fans at the Stadio Friuli. Some consider him their best ever, and when you’ve led your team to two Champions League finishes, who’s to argue?
Italian national team boss Cesare Prandelli called him “an extraordinary player. He is one of those players that gives you a unique emotion. He is currently one of the best strikers around.”
Reports of retirement at the end of the season seem to be way off the mark. The player himself has admitted that “the training sessions are beginning to weigh. But I still enjoy the game a lot.” However, President Giampaolo Pozzo is convinced he’ll stay for at least another year. “There is no problem with his renewal. Di Natale is a man of integrity – like Totti.”
Udinese have never had anyone like Di Natale. And they may never again. Goalscorers like him come around once in a blue moon – let’s enjoy him while we still can.