If the mark of all good strikers is a knack for seizing chances, Alessandro Matri could hardly have made a more compelling start to his Italy career.
The Juventus forward capped his debut against Ukraine last month with a late goal in a 2-0 win, but above all he has needed to learn the virtue of patience on his road to the top. It took the former AC Milan prospect almost seven years out of the limelight before attracting Juve’s advances, including three-and-a half seasons spent proving his worth in Sardinia, but at long last he is making his abilities impossible to ignore.
Much of Matri’s career so far has followed a familiar trajectory for Italian players in Serie A, with the division’s leading lights often preferring to loan out homegrown youngsters and fill their line-ups with proven overseas talent. Several years later, those same top clubs can then be found scrambling to sign the players they once deemed surplus to requirements – and willing to pay premium prices to do it.
For Matri, the earliest steps of that oft-trodden path were taken in Milan's youth set-up. Originally from Graffignana, a small village of 2,000 inhabitants in Lombardy, Matri was always likely to first show up on the radar of one of the region’s two Milanese juggernauts. So it proved as he was snapped up by I Rossoneri aged 12, and what quickly struck the club’s youth coaches were the newcomer’s hunger and all-round game, with his ability to play either as a centre-forward or in a support role complemented by his pace and already impressive aerial game.
Putting those skills to good use as he rose through the ranks, Matri eventually made his Serie A debut on 24 May 2003, in a 4-2 defeat by Piacenza on the final day of the 2002/03 season. Although he can hardly have suspected it at the time, he was destined to wait another four years for another taste of top-flight action.
Matri spent the following term in the reserves as Milan’s first-team striking duties were entrusted to the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Filippo Inzaghi, Rivaldo, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Marco Borriello. It was not an experience he was keen to repeat, and in the summer of 2004 he left the San Siro on loan, honing his game in the second and third tiers during spells with Prato, Lumezzane and Rimini. When Cagliari agreed a co-ownership deal with Milan for his services at the start of the 2007/08 season, Matri surely imagined his return to the elite was imminent.
Further patience was nonetheless required as he had to wait another two campaigns for the departure of coach Davide Ballardini before being handed a starting berth up front. He made sure to grab the opportunity, however, and his eye for goal shone through as he equalled Luigi Riva’s old club record by registering in seven consecutive matches. Indeed, after 22 fixtures of the 2009/10 season, he had already notched up 11 strikes.
“I’ve found the squad here to be relaxed, which surprised me because it’s not easy to stay united when the results aren’t coming,” said Juve’s new No32, who plundered his first two goals for the club against former employers Cagliari on 5 February. “Buffon and Alessandro del Piero both put me at ease as well by telling me not to complicate things and just play the way I know how. I’m an instinctive striker; face to face with a goalkeeper, I don’t think, I shoot.”
The double against Cagliari had the added benefit of earning Matri a call-up to Cesare Prandelli’s Italy squad the very next day, although he had to wait another two months to win his maiden cap against Ukraine. Once again he pounced on his chance, and scoring on his debut is an experience he is unlikely to forget. “I’m living a dream at the moment,” he said afterwards. “My life has completely changed in the space of seven days.”
According to Prandelli, the 26-year-old can rival “the physical impact of Marco Borriello and the goalscoring instincts of Giampaolo Pazzini”, two of his competitors for a place in the Azzurri first XI. Matri’s box of tricks also includes an ability to appear out of nowhere to change a game, as well as a gift for finding goal with both feet and his head, all of which have reminded La Vecchia Signora’s fans of Trezeguet at his peak. Meanwhile, former Juve and Italy striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci believes “Matri can become an important player for La Nazionale, especially since he still has a lot of room to improve. There aren’t too many strikers at his level in Italy.”
After a frustrating seven-year wait to hit his current heights, such fulsome praise from respected observers will be music to Matri’s ears. How much more he receives is now entirely in his hands.