Di Natale rises from the ashes again
Antonio Di Natale is hardly an unknown quantity but many might still be surprised to see him competing with the likes of superstars Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi for this season's European Golden Shoe (formerly Golden Boot) award as the best marksman in European club football.
The focus of attention on Serie A predominantly revolves around the title race between the two Milan clubs but the 32-year-old Udinese captain tops the Serie A scoring charts with 21 goals and continues to bang them in regardless of how badly his team-mates seem to play.
Enjoying his best season ever, Di Natale has almost single-handedly been keeping the historic but definitely modest club from the north-eastern tip of Italy in Serie A.
This weekend's 4-2 loss at Roma was a better display than usual from the Zebras, but there were still too many holes at the back and even getting a point looked unlikely after they went 2-0 down midway through the first half.
Nevertheless, Di Natale still managed to score a brace, the first from the penalty spot.
Udinese currently languish in 16th place, six points above the relegation zone, and but for Di Natale's goals they would almost certainly be in the bottom three and staring at returning to Serie B for the first time since 1994-95.
However, the fact that the Italian international is still playing at all in the top flight of Italian football, let alone scoring prolifically, is an outstanding feat of courage and a great testament to the man.
There were some, I have to confess including myself, who thought that he would never return to this sort of level after the terrible injury he suffered while playing for the Azzurri against Montenegro in a World Cup qualifier almost exactly a year ago.
The ligament damage to his left knee, after he fell awkwardly towards the end of the game, was originally thought to be career-threatening although the prognosis subsequently improved.
A spring and summer of dedicated and painful rehabilitation saw him ready to start the season for Udinese and his early form, with seven goals in the first five games of the current campaign, proved to Marcello Lippi that he was fully fit and worth recalling for games against the Republic of Ireland and Cyprus last autumn.
Di Natale tucks home a penalty against Inter Milan. Photo: AFP
Lippi left Di Natale out of his squad that won the World Cup four years ago but this time around he now looks highly likely to make the cut, perhaps operating as a back-up to Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, with Luca Toni and Alessandro Del Piero and maybe Guiseppe Rossi being the chosen strikers in Italy's 23-man squad going to South Africa.
Di Natale's return to form has probably also closed the door on the possibility of the mercurial Antonio Cassano returning to the Italian side as well as ensuring that Inter's prodigious teenager Mario Balotelli also stays at home.
The debate in Italy continues to rage about whether Lippi's squad is too old - with Di Natale being used as a prime example despite his renowned speed and creativity being barely diminished due to age and his the knee injury - for them to make a significant bid to be the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
However, the Udinese player seems to take it all in his stride, which is probably among the reasons why Lippi now appears to count on him as he openly values solid personalities, regardless of whether he gets plaudits or brickbats.
Despite Lippi's apparent confidence in him, Di Natale will certainly not be taking a plane ticket to the southern hemisphere for granted.
He won the first of his 31 caps in 2002, while still at his previous club Empoli, and he was in and out of the Italian set-up until becoming more of a regular feature just a couple of years ago.
Di Natale also remains less than popular with some pundits, although Lippi has shown himself relatively unbowed by public and press opinion, having to take the brunt of the blame for Italy's indifferent showing at Euro 2008, especially after having a crucial penalty saved in the quarter-final shoot-out against Spain.
However, he seems to take all the furore that his playing skills generate quietly in his stride.
Like the mythical phoenix, Di Natale has become very adept at rising from the ashes when his career has seemingly burnt to the ground, whether the bonfire has been lit by the media, injuries or his own occasional dips in form.
His stoic demeanour is one of the reasons why he is so highly regarded by Lippi, many Italian fans and his fellow professionals alike.
Di Natale is also a curiosity among top Italian players, having never pulled on a jersey for any of Italy's 'Big Three', Inter, Milan and Juventus or indeed any of the chorus line like Roma or Fiorentina.
He was been linked with big money moves in 2007 and 2008, with various clubs in Germany and Spain also being tossed around along with some of the usual Serie A suspects, but ended all speculation by signing a new contract before the start of last season which will keep him at Udinese until 2013.
He has only ever been on the books of two clubs as a professional, spending eight years at Empoli, although he was loaned out several times in the early years of his career, and then, after their relegation, he moved to Udinese in 2004.
Di Natale has been there ever since, a southerner in a resolutely northern city with a strong Germanic influence.
"I like Udine, it's a pleasant city that suits my family and me," said Di Natale recently.
He is certainly not homesick for the Pomigliano d'Arco, just north-east of Naples, although he likes to tell the story of how he missed his family so much as a 13-year-old that he ran away from Empoli's youth training school after just a few days in Tuscany.
In a sense though, he is still running, and running fast, much to the surprise and continual frustration of opposition defences.
Comments on the blog in the space provided below. Other questions on European football to firstname.lastname@example.org. I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.
Here's a couple from this week's post bag and questions about La Liga remain as popular as ever.
Q) What do you make of Vicente (Rodriguez) of Valencia? I always thought he was a quality player although unlucky with injuries.
Neil Loughran, Lurgan, Northern Ireland
A) Vicente was a fantastic left winger in his early 20s and is still only 28. Former Valencia manager Claudio Ranieri famously said of him, "It is clear that he is one of the best players (of recent times). Some footballers are a little more than others and Vicente is one of them."
However, injuries and the emergence of Juan Mata mean that he's now a peripheral part of the Valencia squad. He's only played five minutes in La Liga this season, and two Copa Del Rey matches. He won the last of his 38 caps back in 2005 so I don't see any chance of a recall to the Spanish squad in the near future either.
Q) My two favourite footballers in Spain both represent the same club, Athletic Bilbao. The first is Gaizka Toquero and the second is Iker Muniain. I was just wondering how good you thought they were and how far the can go in the future?
William Unwin, Manchester
A) Muniain is clearly a star in the making, he's still only 17 and he's being brought along in the right way, in my opinion, by Joaquin Caparros. He has every chance of progressing to the very highest levels and I can see elements of Cristiano Ronaldo about him, even though he's got a long way to go before he reaches that current standard of the Real Madrid man. I am less convinced about Toquero. He's certainly a hard working supporting strike up front but, ultimately, I don't see him as an international class forward.