Udinese Calcio are renowned for unearthing talented players and selling them on to big-name clubs a few years down the line, but Antonio Di Natale has never conformed to the standard Zebrette model, famously rejecting a move to Juventus in 2010.
Now 33, the striker who has topped the Serie A goalscoring charts for the past two seasons with totals of 29 and 28 respectively joined Udinese from Empoli FC seven years ago. He is yet to be tempted to leave, not least, perhaps, as the team captain has some unfinished business in the UEFA Champions League, which his side enter in the play-offs after a fourth-place finish in 2010/11.
Di Natale is one of only two players in the Udinese squad that reached the group stage of the 2005/06 competition, a side that narrowly missed out on a place in the round of 16 with a 2-0 home loss against FC Barcelona. They needed a point to go through, but conceded twice in the last five minutes to finish third in the section.
That memory may have put added pressure on the striker, who said: "We all have to be in top condition for the play-offs. I know I will because this could be my last chance to play in the Champions League."
The Naples-born marksman is well aware that the sterling efforts made in Serie A last season will count for little if his side fail to reach the group stage. "We all know that all the hard work we put in last season is at stake in these next two games," he said as he looked ahead to Friday's play-off draw. "Last year it took me some time to find my best form because of the World Cup in South Africa, but this time around I have been able to start training at the right time and I feel fine physically."
That is excellent news for coach Francesco Guidolin who has headaches enough as he bids to fill the gaps left by the sales of Cristián Zapata, Gökhan Inler and Alexis Sánchez to Villarreal CF, SSC Napoli and Barcelona respectively. Di Natale, however, is sure that the club can provide replacements. "We may have lost important players in the transfer market but this club have always done well finding new talent from all over the world, so I'm not worried at all," he said.
Defender Danilo Larangeira and midfielders Abdoul Wahid Sissoko and Thierry Doubai have been brought in as replacements, with the most recent arrival, Brazilian centre-back Neuton, 21, honoured to get the chance to play alongside Di Natale. "I was a young boy when I used to watch Di Natale's goals on TV back in Brazil," he said. "He is a great player." Club legend Zico agrees, calling 'Totò' "the best Italian player of them all". Certainly a star that deserves at least one more chance to shine at the highest level.
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