x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gilardino is getting back to his best

Alberto Gilardino has another wonderful opportunity to underline his status as Italy's striker of the moment.

A rib injury has ruled Luca Toni's out of a return to the city where he made his name as Fiorentina host Bayern Munich in the Champions League tonight - so all eyes will be on Alberto Gilardino. The man known as Gila has another wonderful opportunity to underline his status as Italy's striker of the moment. He has been a revelation since joining Fiorentina from AC Milan for ?11million (Dh61.6m) in May, grabbing seven goals in eight league games to head the Serie A scoring charts.

A last-minute equaliser against bitter rivals Juventus on the opening day of the Serie A season did much to endear him to his new supporters - and he's made an immediate impact on Fiorentina's Champions League campaign, too, scoring three goals in five games so far. Not even a two-match suspension following a handballed goal against Palermo on Oct 26 has undermined his dramatic return to form since ending a difficult three-year spell at the San Siro.

His new bosses are in no doubt about what a great signing he has proved. "I think [buying Gilardino] was the best bit of business I have ever made. He was ready to come here and he even took a pay cut," said Fiorentina sporting director Pantaleo Corvino. "He had problems at Milan but we managed to get in there thanks to some heavy investment from the club's owners and we signed one of the most prolific strikers around."

Gilardino was the Italian Young Player of the Year when he moved to Milan in 2005. But after an excellent start - 17 goals in 34 games in his first season - he netted just 19 times in 60 appearances over the next two years. His European form suffered, too - he managed just two goals in 21 Champions League games, at one point firing blanks in 12 consecutive games. It was hardly the sort of proficiency that persuaded the club to fork out ?24m to sign him from Parma.

Theories abound as to why he failed to settle in Lombardy, with the former Italy coach Cesare Maldini suggesting the striker struggled to handle the pressure. Gilardino does seem happier away from the media glare - he came to prominence in the gentler surroundings of Parma, where he scored 50 goals in 96 leagues games. A vital figure in his development there was manager Cesare Prandelli - now boss of Fiorentina. Little wonder Gilardino has rediscovered his scoring touch since linking up with his mentor again.

If Toni were fit tonight, Italian football fans would have had the chance to compare the skills of two men competing for the main striker's slot in Marcello Lippi's new-look Italy. Both players contributed to the Azzurri's World Cup triumph two years ago - Toni scored twice and Gilardino once on route to glory - and Gilardino got the nod over Toni in Italy's 0-0 draw against Bulgaria last month. This battle looks set to run and run.

For now, though, the 26-year-old striker's focus is the match against Bayern at Stadio Artemio Franchi. After a 3-0 mauling at the hands of those same opponents at the Allianz Arena a fortnight ago, nothing less than victory will do tonight. Fiorentina's group-stage efforts began with a creditable 2-2 draw at Lyon on Sept 17 - Gilardino scored both goals - but a disappointing 0-0 stalemate at home to Steaua Bucharest on Sept 30 followed, before that heavy defeat in Germany last month.

The Viola lie three points behind Lyon and five points behind Bayern, with Lyon confident of beating Steaua in Group F's other game on French soil tonight. Gilardino's inclusion, however - not to mention the absence of Toni down the other end of the pitch - gives Prandelli's side an excellent chance of winning, too. Their Champions League dream is far from over - and 'Gila' has another chance to continue his journey back towards the top.

jeastham@thenational.ae