Nowadays, once a player turns 30 he is often considered to be over the hill. With young pretenders commanding phenomenal transfer fees, and the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner aged just 24, youth is fashionable and sticking by an ageing forward has seemed somewhat out of style in recent years.
However, Udinese's Antonio Di Natale is emphatically disproving the notion that youthfulness trumps experience by reaching his purplest of patches since entering his fourth decade. Blessed with sublime technique and a rocket of a free-kick, the diminutive Italian striker has now scored 20 league goals in each of his last three seasons, a feat he'd never achieved before. What makes it all the more impressive is that he only started hitting his peak once he turned 31.
Having topped the scoring charts for the last two years, the forward has been central to Udinese's recent rise from mid-table mediocrity. Now 34, he has already reached 20 goals in Serie A again, having scored 28 and 29 in the previous two seasons, and his impact is being felt right up and down the peninsula.
Last weekend he bagged what was his 75th goal in the past three league campaigns, keeping Udinese in the hunt for European football. Their 3-1 defeat to Roma on Wednesday leaves them three points adrift of third-placed Lazio and the last UEFA Champions League qualification spot, but a win over Inter Milan on Saturday will allow them to draw level with i Biancocelesti, though, for 12 hours at least.
His reputation precedes him now, and Chievo's Alberto Paloschi captured the mood of so many opponents following a 2-1 defeat to i Bianconeri back in December. After the Friuli captain had opened the scoring, the young forward said: "You start 1-0 down against Udinese because Di Natale scores a goal every time." With a record of three goals every four games over the past three seasons, he is pretty much right.
His impact has been registered beyond Italy too. While his five goals in six games in Europe reflects his best ever haul on the continent, he is also the only striker in Europe's top five leagues to come close to the gargantuan tallies clocked up by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. These two global superstars, who have 106 and 104 league goals apiece over the same three-season period, are the only players to have denied the less heralded man from Naples the European Golden Shoe in its last two instalments.
His goalscoring explosion came after being moved inside to centre-forward. You could argue that his talent had been somewhat wasted out on the wing, a fact largely because he measures in at just 5'7" tall and was deemed too short to lead the line.
Having begun his career at Empoli, working his way through the youth set-up, he finally broke into the senior squad on a regular basis in the 1999/2000 season. His haul of 16 goals in 2002 saw them promoted, before making the switch to Udinese in 2004 for an undisclosed fee.
While scoring consistently since his move, he has only been deployed as a striker since turning 30, a fact which Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin feels is a pity. “It's almost a shame he discovered the role of centre-forward so late in his career," he said. "Otherwise he would have scored more than 200 goals in Italy."
It was the departure of Fabio Quagliarella back in 2009/10 which prompted then coach Pasquale Marino to move him to a more central role. Had he not chosen to do this, Di Natale and Udinese may have been plying their trade in Serie B. He registered his personal record of 29 goals in the league that season as they slumped to a 15th-placed finish, scoring more than half of the Friuli side's goals that campaign.
That was their worst placing since promotion back to the top flight in 1995, but with the arrival of Guidolin in place of Marino, and Di Natale continuing his fine form, i Bianconeri shot up into fourth and sealed qualification for the Champions League. The Italian forward’s hot streak continues to impress his coach too. "He is an outstanding, mature player, who knows what he's capable of? He's having an extraordinary spell. He manages to score almost every match," the Italian tactician said.
"He's our main goalscorer, but he also does extraordinary moves, creating chances. In short, he comes from another dimension." His 20 assists since the start of the 2009/10 season mean he has played a part in 58 per cent of their league goals, an extraordinary input over such a period.
This kind of form has put him firmly in the frame for a trip to UEFA EURO 2012, after years of sporadic appearances for his country. He scored in Italy’s final 2010 FIFA World Cup™ match with Slovakia, but has hasn’t featured since, and his 33 appearances for Gli Azzurri have been stretched over a decade, with only a couple of meaningful stints in the side.
There is no doubt, however, that he has now caught the eye of coach Cesare Prandelli. With the likes of Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano both looking to return to fitness he has every chance of heading to Poland and Ukraine. Prandelli said last week: "I’ve been saying this for a year now. He is a player who is enjoying an extraordinary run of consistent form, therefore he is being followed. I’m considering him very strongly. But wait before you say that he will ‘definitely be at EURO 2012’."
His age has been the major sticking point, at a time when Italy are trying a transition to a younger squad, but it's certainly an opportunity Di Natale would not overlook: "I don’t think that you need to be a certain age to be part of the squad," he said.
"I think scoring more than 60 goals in two seasons is enough to put yourself in the spotlight for selection. It’s just up to the coach to decide whether to pick me or not. In the meantime I am at his disposal." With Gli Azzurri shaping up as dark horses for EURO 2012, a talent like Di Natale’s may be just what’s needed to take them that little bit further.