x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Argentina's secret weapon

If Messi, Higuain and Tevez fail, Maradona can call on Inter Milan's prolific striker Milito, writes Ian Hawkey.

The Argentine striker Diego Milito has bagged an impressive goals return this season for Inter Milan, scoring 15 goals in Serie A from 24 games Jose Mourinho's side.
The Argentine striker Diego Milito has bagged an impressive goals return this season for Inter Milan, scoring 15 goals in Serie A from 24 games Jose Mourinho's side.

Diego Milito had to content himself with a view from the sidelines last Wednesday in Munich, watching his Argentina challenge the many sceptics who reckon that, with Diego Maradona in charge, and a chaotic qualifying campaign behind them, the Argentines will not be genuine contenders at this summer's World Cup. Think again.

Milito's very presence on the substitutes' bench should be one strong argument why Argentina, who beat Germany in last week's friendly, must be taken seriously. Milito's 15 league strikes make him the second top scorer in Serie A, and the most reliable piece of artillery in Inter Milan's squad. He is not an automatic starter at the moment for his country because two of his compatriots, Barcelona's Leo Messi and Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain, are ranking second and third in the Spanish league goalscoring charts; Carlos Tevez is hauling Manchester City up the English Premier League and Sergio Aguero is maturing into a fine finisher at Atletico Madrid.

Argentina have a grand tradition for centre forwards every bit as high in calibre as their penchant for playmakers. The current squad is proof of that. Milito, who faces his former club Genoa at San Siro this evening, belongs firmly in that tradition of sharp, direct No 9s. He describes himself as a penalty-box specialist, though not a goal-hanger, because he works hard down the wings and inside forward channels when he needs to and can spring an offside trap cleverly from deep when Inter are operating on the counter- attack.

"My game is based on movement across the front of the attack to try and disorientate the opponent's defence," says the 30-year-old. "But finishing is what makes a good centre forward. Goals are what count and I'm a striker, so I need them. I don't have an especially powerful shot, and I don't get too many goals from outside the penalty area, mostly they are from close range. "But I do play for the team and try and get involved in the build-up."

Milito has acquired, among the Argentine fans, the nickname "Diegol" - gol meaning goal - for the fact that in his last seven seasons, spent moving across clubs across two different European leagues, he has always returned a total well into double figures. His status in Italy is not quite that of "Batigol", as the Fiorentina, Roma and Argentina striker, Gabriel Batistuta, was known. Or of "Trezegol", as the Juventus goal-getter David Trezeguet, the France international, became, or of his compatriot Hernan Crespo, who, now in his mid thirties, recently swapped Genoa for Parma.

Genoa certainly miss him. He scored 26 times for them last season, his second stint at the club, helping to propel the Genoese to within goal difference of a Champions League place. They remain in contention for European football next season, but the departures of Milito and Thiago Motta to Inter last summer did weaken Genoa. Milito hopes they finish the season strongly, because he feels a debt to the club that introduced him to the ways of Italian football.

Before Genoa, he had been at Real Zaragoza in Spain. The challenges in Serie A are very distinct. "Here in Italy, the difficulty is that there is so much emphasis on the tactical aspect of the game in the defences," he observes. "It's also physically tougher, they play harder and you end up with more bruises. You get double-marked more, so you work harder to keep up your goal average. But with Inter it has seemed easier than at Genoa because I get more chances."

And he has been taking those chances of late. His early goal in the Champions League last 16 first-leg meeting with Chelsea nearly 10 days ago has helped Inter take a small advantage to Stamford Bridge the week after next. He scored for the 15th time in Serie A in last weekend's 3-2 win at Udinese. Since the turn of the year, Milito's goals have featured in six of Inter's eight victories. Those are the sort of goalscoring runs a striker tries to nurture.

"You want to get used to scoring, to make it a sort of addiction," he says. "I always go out there thinking that the best goal and the most important goal is just around the corner." Elsewhere today, Palermo, one of the surprise packages of the season, host relegation-strugglers Livorno. At the start of the weekend, the Sicilian club were in fourth place. The rossaneri have won three of their last four games and remain unbeaten at La Favorita this season.

sports@thenational.ae Inter v Genoa, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1