Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Small, fast, skilful, elusive: Udinese forwards Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez are the odd couple of Serie A, as no other side in the top flight play with a diminutive front-two who possess such exquisite technical qualities.
Di Natale and Sanchez both stand around 5ft8 in their sock feet and like nothing better than a tight turn before accelerating away with the ball to play quick-one-twos in and around the area – they’re both also deadly from long range; be it from open play or dead-ball situations.
Di Natale was at it again on Sunday with a wonderful strike from a free-kick putting the flying Friuli ahead in what was a high-tempo 3-1 home rout of Inter – a result which put the brakes on the newfound momentum the Nerazzurri had found under coach Leonardo.
The defending champions should have expected as much; Francesco Guidolin’s men had already put four past AC Milan at the San Siro two weeks ago, - although they also conceded the same amount that night - and then hit four again last weekend at Genoa, this time running out 4-2 winners.
Di Natale is topping the goalscoring charts once again on 15 goals, only two of which have come from the penalty spot, having been crowned Capocannoniere as Serie A top scorer last year when he netted 29 goals in total.
The tactic of playing two smaller frontmen would seem to have its limitations but the astute Guidolin changed the system during the comeback win over Fiorentina in December: no sitting back, no more high balls but quick, decisive passing – and the switch paid dividends.
Since then the Bianconeri have suffered just one defeat, which happened to come in the game after Fiorentina, at Lazio when most of the starting XI plus subsequent substitutes all took it in turn to miss a hatful of chances.
The change in approach also called time on Antonio Floro Flores reclaiming a starting place and it was no surprise that the third wheel moved on to Genoa last week rather than sit on the bench.
Of course, the glory is not down to the pocket-sized front-two alone, but a midfield five that ensures constant service. The tactic is simple enough: win the ball back and then get it forward as quickly as possible to catch the opposition off-guard.
The tall and imposing Gokhan Inler is the lynchpin in the middle flanked by the equally robust Giampiero Pinzi and Kwadwo Asamoah but there are two other vertically-challenged performers in Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero who race up and down the flanks, providing a constant outlet – it is an non-stop intensity and fitness allied to skill that is almost like watching Barcelona at times – well the closest an Italian club can get to the Catalans.
There is also a team ethic that binds, but the Bianconeri will have to enjoy it while they can. For a start the Di Natale and Sanchez partnership may soon come to an end: the Italian is 33 while the Chilean is just 22-years-old and.
Born outside Naples, Di Natale has never found the need to move to a bigger club – having been linked with AS Roma and Napoli in the past and in the summer demonstrated his loyalty to the unfashionable north-east by turning down a switch to Juventus.
Having spent eight years in the backwater of Empoli he found out long ago that the grass is not always greener having been a nearly-man for Italy as a succession of coaches felt he did not possess the glamour to play on the international stage – by South Africa it was too late and even then he was given a bit-part by Marcello Lippi.
It is days such as yesterday that Totò dreams off: feeling appreciated among the down to earth citizens who visit the Friuli stadium and repaying that sentiment with some sublime performances – hat-tricks against Lecce and Napoli in consecutive home games this season spring to mind.
Di Natale may have found his home but El Ninho Maravilla - as Sanchez is known – is only starting out on his long road in the game. He has learnt from the old maestro although the young Chilean will not remain in one place for much longer and the top sides throughout Europe have been eyeing the South American.
He created a buzz at the World Cup finals so it is not as if he is a completely unknown quality and has already hit a couple of stunning goals this season, the pick of which coming at Bari.
Udinese president Gianpaolo Pozzi has slapped a 30million Euro price-tag from which Massimo Moratti shied away at the turn of the year but may well have to reconsider tabling a bid in that ball-park or miss out on what his aging Inter side needs: youth and talent in one bundle.
The signs are that the Di Sanchez will remain until the end of the season which on current form should see Udinese back in Europe - so for now we can all enjoy the odd couple who have so much in common as they cut the giants down to size.
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