Last Tuesday, the great Gerd Muller - arguably the finest-ever penalty box predator - saw his long-standing record of 62 goals in European competition matched by a man to whom he was once a role model. Yet while Filippo Inzaghi's match-winning brace as a second half substitute for AC Milan in Donetsk saw him emulate one of the game's striking legends, the 34-year-old's name is unlikely to ever be uttered in the same reverential tones that are widely reserved for Der Bomber.
Inzaghi, who holds a diploma in accountancy, could justifiably
protest that his numbers stack up. Two UEFA Champions League
medals, three Scudettos, one FIFA World Cup™, 57 caps and over 250
career goals - 25 of them for Italy - is certainly not the career
haul one would expect of a limited and lightweight striker.
Yet despite the overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary, this is just what Superpippo's many critics - both at home and abroad - claim the the Milan front-runner is. Johan Cruyff, perhaps the most high-profile of these detractors, once cuttingly remarked: "Actually, he can't play football at all. He's just always in the right position."
Even more well known is Sir Alex Ferguson's famous quip that Inzaghi "was born offside", with both comments tapping into a surprisingly widely-held belief that the Italian has built his glittering career on a combination of luck and borderline dishonesty. Certainly, when Inzaghi deflected in Andrea Pirlo's free-kick with his shoulder in the 2007 Champions League final, there were plenty of neutrals looking on who shook their heads and muttered "typical Inzaghi... "
No matter that he has scored goals wherever he has played, from Piacenza and Atalanta to Juventus, Milan and the national team, nor that he went on to claim a beautifully-taken second in Athens. Even the fact that Inzaghi had scored a near-identical goal at Empoli earlier in the same season could not deter his critics from citing that deflected goal as yet another example of fortune favouring a player whose talent does not justify the success he enjoys.
Inzaghi, these cynics argue, is neither strong, skilful nor particularly deft of touch. His sharpness in and around the penalty area also belies a surprising lack of pace; in Milan's pre-season sprint tests, he was slower over 40 metres than the likes of 39-year-old Paolo Maldini, Cafu, 37, and Serginho, who is 36. His style of play, meanwhile, can be clumsy and ungainly, contrasting starkly with club colleague Kaka, while his predilection for pouting when pulled back for even the most blatant offside decision wins him no new friends.
'A consummate professional'
Yet while Kaka is feted and Inzaghi maligned, perhaps it is Superpippo who is more deserving of praise. After all, while Milan's Brazilian playmaker and the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho have been blessed with extraordinary natural talent, Inzaghi has dedicated his life to reaching the top without the advantage of such God-given ability.
The man himself has summed up the key to his success thus: " You can learn from every match. I prepare everything in the tiniest detail. My diet, how I train. This has been my secret."
In truth, Inzaghi is more acutely aware of his technical and physical deficiencies than anyone, and is equally conscious of the criticism he receives. What his detractors perhaps do not appreciate is that he watches and then re-watches tapes of the matches in which he is involved, and still endures sleepless nights before almost every fixture.
"He's a consummate professional," was Ancelotti's assessment of a player so sensitive to his own shortcomings that, even at 34 and despite all that he has achieved, still sees himself with plenty to prove. After equalling Muller's record, he was moved to say: "You always have to keep proving yourself, even at my age. I like to break records and prove people wrong who say I'm too old."
It is partly due to this burning desire to confound his critics that has ensured that, having seen his Milan career all but written off after the arrivals of Alberto Gilardino and Ronaldo, Inzaghi is still proving a star turn for the Rossoneri. Now, after reaching the 62-goal mark in his 97th European appearance, he has in his sights former strike partner's Andriy Shevchenko's record tally of 34 continental strikes for the Milan giants.
Inzaghi, now just a goal short of the Ukrainian, said: "It would be nice to beat Sheva's tally, as he was a great team-mate and friend of mine. Fortunately, I play in a team that has allowed me to score many goals... And altruism isn't one of my top characteristics!"
Typical of Inzaghi, this jocular, self-deprecating reference to his own infamous selfishness in front of goal sums up the striker who has matched, and may yet surpass, Muller. True, he has his failings - and is well aware of each and every one of them - but Inzaghi's goals continue to mean that his supporters and colleagues love him just the way he is.