Di Natale deserves his World Cup spot
Giampaolo Pazzini, the Sampdoria striker, is the hero of Inter Milan as the re-installed Serie A leaders head off to Barcelona and their Champions League semi-final. Pazzini's two goals in the 2-1 win at Roma mean Inter, with a two-point lead and three matches to play, are again favourites to win the scudetto. Pazzini will be happy his profile has been raised by the indirect implications of his double. He is eyeing a World Cup place, and his 16th and 17th strikes of the league season will do his chances no harm.
What neither he, nor his Italian compatriots Fabrizio Miccoli, whose strike in Palermo's win over AC Milan also took him to 17, Alberto Gilardino, on 15, or Marco Borriello, 14, can any longer expect is to finish the season as Serie A's most potent scorer. The Capocannoniere trophy now seems all but certain to be placed next month on a mantelpiece in the far north-east corner of the country. The Capocannoniere, literally "the chief cannon", is the title that goes annually to the leading goalscorer in league football, and, having registered his 25th strike of the campaign in Udinese's 4-1 win over Siena, Antonio Di Natale is well ahead. Di Natale leads Inter's Diego Milito by five goals.
You might normally expect the top goalscorer to come from one of the sides challenging for the title, or at least for a European place. Udinese are not, nor have they been close to being candidates for the medal positions, apart from a brief spell when, back in September, they beat Milan - Di Natale, naturally, with the goal - during a run that brought them 10 points from four matches. Di Natale's goals constitute more than 50 per cent of his team's total, a vast ratio. His influence climbs even further when you add the five assists that feature in his impressive statistics. All told, Di Natale's strikes have been worth 11 extra points to the Friulian club. His goals made the direct difference between Udinese winning and drawing matches four times; his goals turned possible lost games into draws another three times. Now, if you take away 11 points from the 42 compiled so far by 13th-placed Udinese, the club would be deep in the relegation zone. Udinese, one of the top-flight's leakier teams defensively, certainly needed Di Natale's energy and sharp finishing.
He is an unlikely looking saviour, not at all in the mould of a classic centre-forward. Di Natale, a native of Naples, stands only 5ft 10ins. He does not gain space in the penalty area by out-muscling or out-jumping his opponents. His ally is technique, a developed sense of where to make his runs, two-footedness and a good work-rate. Much of this he has honed over several years. At 32, Di Natale is no novice.
And at his age, Di Natale cannot automatically expect, like others who have claimed the Capocannoniere title with provincial teams, a move to a grander club. It happened to the pair of Udinese strikers who last picked up the honour. Oliver Bierhoff, now general manager of Germany, went to Milan after his 27-goal 1997-98 season for Udinese. Marcio Amoroso scored 22 times, more than anybody else in Serie A, for Udinese in the next nine months, and was transferred to Parma and then to Borussia Dortmund.
What Di Natale most has to look forward to most is June in South Africa. Picked first for Italy back in 2002, but capped seldom in the four years after that, he has never been to a World Cup. Fitness permitting, he will go to this one high in coach Marcello Lippi's hierarchy. And he will cherish the occasion. Di Natale recently joked to reporters he might retire if the Azzurri triumph again, because nothing in football afterwards could ever match that "high".