Di Natale vs Balotelli: A study in contrasts
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The study in contrasts could not have been greater between the two Italy forwards during Sunday's 1-1 draw with Spain at the European Championship.
In Spain vs Italy match, the 21-year-old Balotelli earned one yellow card and could have easily been handed another, then wasted his best scoring chance by inexplicably waiting too long to shoot.
The 34-year-old Di Natale scored on his very first chance, five minutes after replacing Balotelli, to give Italy a short-lived lead over the defending and world champion.
Di Natale has scored 20 or more goals the past three seasons with unsung Udinese in Serie A, but until now he hadn't done anything too memorable with Italy.
After collecting a pass from Andrea Pirlo just as he slipped in between two defenders, Di Natale then expertly shot around Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the 61st minute.
"It's my best goal with the national team shirt,'' Di Natale said. "(Pirlo) did a great job of getting me the ball in the area, then I did well to take advantage of it.''
Di Natale also had a great chance to restore Italy's lead in the 77th, but missed a difficult volley from the edge of the box.
"I hit the ball too well, and when that happens it doesn't go in,'' Di Natale said.
Balotelli's aggressiveness drew the attention of Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai, first with a verbal warning after the Italy forward collided with Gerard Pique, then with a yellow card for a foul on Jordi Alba in the 37th.
In the 53rd, Balotelli dribbled in all alone on goal, but then slowed down just enough to let Sergio Ramos catch up to strip him of the ball. Three minutes later, Balotelli was on the bench.
"I'm not holding anything against him,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "I'm not sure what happened – maybe he had two options and he couldn't choose one.''
Regarding Di Natale, there were no questions to ponder.
"I'm happy with Antonio,'' Prandelli said. "He did everything I asked of him today.''
At Euro 2008, Di Natale missed a penalty in the shootout loss to Spain in the quarterfinals.
"I've been carrying around that bothersome memory for four years,'' Di Natale said. "I waited four years for this goal.''
The past four years have also been the best seasons of Di Natale's career. He led the Italian league with 29 goals in 2009-10, and 28 in 2010-11, then scored 23 more this past season, with his final strike clinching the northern squad third place and a spot in the final Champions League qualifying round.
At 1.70 meters (5-foot-7), Di Natale is nearly a head shorter than Balotelli. But his instincts can't be compared, and he's often seen offering advice to Balotelli.
"We talk every day, and we always try to give each other a hand,'' Di Natale said, who received an affectionate congratulatory embrace from Balotelli after the match.
A month ago, Di Natale acknowledged he is considering retiring after this tournament.
"Let's talk about that at the end of the tournament,'' he said Sunday.
Perhaps the discussion now will be whether Prandelli will start Di Natale ahead of Balotelli in Italy's next Group C match against Croatia on Thursday.
"I'm ready to play any time the coach asks me to,'' Di Natale said. "He makes the choices, then it's up to me not to disappoint him.''
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