Antonio Di Natale may just have played his way into Cesare Prandelli's starting line-up against Croatia after the coach made a point of singing his praises today. Di Natale had an instant impact when coming on for a lacklustre Mario Balotelli in the 1-1 draw against Spain on Sunday in the Azzurri's opening Group C match at UEFA EURO 2012.
The Udinese forward scored the opening goal in Gdansk and almost notched another as his pace and movement bemused the Spain defence. Even at 34 he is still one of the most dangerous strikers in Serie A and his 80 league goals over the last three seasons, more than anyone else has mustered, attest to that.
Despite ignoring him for the entire EURO qualification campaign, Prandelli admitted the Napoli native simply played his way into contention. "When we started this journey we tried to construct a team that could have a future," said Prandelli.
"We've always looked for top players, especially in attack and it was right to integrate Toto (Di Natale) into the squad. As I've always said it's easy to insert him into the team, he doesn't need a lot of games to get used to it.
"He's perhaps the best in Italy at getting behind the backline. Yesterday he had a great pass from (Andrea) Pirlo but it was due to his movement that he had time to set up the goal and beat his adversary."
The contrast between Di Natale's determined and explosive impact and Balotelli's languid ineffectiveness could not have been more stark. Balotelli was booked for a clumsy challenge, his touch was often poor and he failed to really get a foothold in the game.
He was also seen to berate a linesman on one occasion when he felt he deserved a foul and then beat the ground in frustration when he was adjudged to have fouled Gerard Pique, demonstrating that he was struggling to control his emotions.
But worst of all was the reckless lack of attention he showed in being caught and tackled by Sergio Ramos as he approached the goal, one-on-one against Iker Casillas.
Balotelli had shown great anticipation to rob Ramos on the touchline but after surging goalwards he slowed to almost a standstill as he tried to decide what to do, allowing the Spaniard to recover and save his own blushes.
"He said he was looking for Antonio (Cassano) and wasn't aware that Ramos had recovered," explained Prandelli. "But I must underline the fact that in winning the ball in the first place he showed that he was a real player with character and physique, but when you have two options (to shoot or pass), it slows you down."
The suspicion amongst many people is that Prandelli will select Di Natale ahead of Balotelli in the next match on Thursday against Croatia. The coach refused to say as much himself but he did allude to the fact that he was expecting more from the talented Manchester City forward.
"He's  years old and he's probably on the road to finding maturity," said Prandelli. "He has to stop thinking about winning a game on his own every time he touches the ball and just help the team to go forward.
"Probably for the first time he has to show everyone the potential that everyone knows he has, so he has a responsibility."