Old age predators – Serie A’s league of veteran strikers

The resurgence of Filippo Inzaghi in the front-line of the Milanese strike force could leave you forgiven for thinking that the man once lamented by Sir Alex Ferguson as having been “born offside” was enjoying an Indian Summer in a league often perceived as slow or methodical.

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However, when Gianluca Curci picked up the Rossoneri’s fifth from his net on Sunday lunchtime, he was also laying claim to the 300th effort by Inzaghi to have beaten an opposition goalkeeper in the 35-year-old’s much travelled career. Hardly an inauspicious feat for any striker but in Italy it would seem that strikers are capable of prolonging their stay at the highest level more than most.

Looking across the country as a whole, players like Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta have managed to last for what seems like centuries in the peak competition on the peninsula, with the game seemingly favouring well versed professionals. However, the wise-head of a seasoned defender breaking up play and sweeping up attacks is one thing but for a man nearing retirement to still render themselves a problem for defenders is very much another.

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Just looking at the current scoring charts the man blazing the way at the top of the chart is of a similar ilk to Inzaghi, both in age, clubs on his CV and prolific ability – Marco Di Vaio. The former Nazionale goal scorer is enjoying a second, hell, even third or fourth wind in the current dogfight being endured by struggling Bologna. In the Rossoblu’s fight against relegation, the former Juventus and Parma forward has proved to an integral part of Sinsia Mihaljovic’s plans even as the team slip towards the waiting jaws of Serie B. Offering a wise, predatory head at the forefront of the Bologna crusade, Il Bomber has a wealth of experience to call on when leading the line, often on his own in an conservative 4-5-1 formation.

The shaven-headed hitman is set to blow out the candles on his 33rd birthday cake come the close of the season and could have ensured himself another year in Serie A after bagging an impressive 19 goals. All this in a period when players of his generation are normally used as impact substitutes or mentors to underdeveloped, precocious talent. This dependence on an elder statesmen is not an anomaly consigned to a team looking to fire its way out of despair, as the majority of top scorers in the league have more years in the bag than some of their team-mates have career goals.

In past years the Capocannonieri has been scooped by Alessandro Del Piero (2007/08, aged 33), Francesco Totti (2006/07, aged 30) and Luca Toni (2005/06, aged 29). A widely wheeled-out punditry claim is that predatory instincts are honed over time, and nowhere is that truer than Italy’s top division. For example, those currently offering Di Vaio company in the top ten scorers in Serie A for 2008/09, excluding the 19-year-old Brazilian wonder kid Alexandre Pato, there is no other goal scorer in the league’s top ten below the age of 26.

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To put that into context, the current top ten scorers in the English Premier League and La Liga have an average age of 26.8 and 26.36, respectively. In Serie A, the average age of men finding the net most is 27.5.

Breathing down Di Vaio’s neck in the scoring charts are three men, all on the verge of their 30th birthday, but also proving a consistent menace to opposing defences. Compounding his position at second in the table with two strikes against Fiorentina, the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic has led to referees trying in vain to spell his name correctly in their match reports 17 times.

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While, at Genoa – where Di Vaio is currently enjoying a season on-loan away from – a great deal of significance in their surprise rise to the upper echelons of the league can be seen in the goals of Diego Milito. The imposing Argentine has earned himself a sizeable fan base at the Luigis Ferrraris with 15 goals so far and the potential for more to come as the Genovese chase the promised land of European football. Tied with the former Real Zaragoza centre forward in third place is Albert Gilardino. At 26, Gila can be seen as something of a pup in comparison to those above him but the Fiorentina forward has been plying his trade in Serie A since 1999 and has come somewhat accustomed to putting the ball past top flight keepers – even if his short stint at the San Siro didn’t proved unsuccessful.

Ultimately, the players making the biggest indent on statisticians and goalkeepers alike are those with the biggest gains to be achieved – be it survival, the title or the quest for European football and, if the weekend just passed is anything to go by, then defences are starting to tire after a long and arduous season. History dictates that between 24 and 26 is a tally capable of landing the coveted crown of top scorer, but there will have to be a real flurry of activity in the final ten games for any of the current poachers to be aligned with the goal scoring royalty of Gunnar Nordahl, Julio Libonatti and Ferenc Hizer to achieve the current record of 35 in a single season.

However, 28 in ten games could be a little bit too much for Inzaghi to make this a truly remarkable close to the season in what has been a very special career.

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