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Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Flying without wings

Roberto Gotta

Forget Bologna's win at Milan, which saw the visitors employ the good old catenaccio approach and come away with a win which does wonders for their bid to stay up; and forget Lazio's woes in going down to a freakish goal in Reggio Calabria.

High times: The 'little aeroplane' takes flight. (NewPress/GettyImages)

Do not even consider Atalanta Ultras'(for lack of a better word) demand to have a meeting with coach Delio Rossi and some players right after the Juventus game so they might explain their poor performance, as this shameful example of mob-like mentality is all too common here (by the way, they got the meeting, but not before making it clear to a couple of TV cameramen working outside the locker rooms they had better not film any footage).

No, the biggest piece of news on Sunday was actually non-news: three Roma players scored but Vincenzo Montella was not among them. The Giallorossi's great comeback win against Messina was their third success in their last four Serie A matches since the derby defeat against Lazio, and one that lifts them within one point of Udinese, who are now currently in the fourth place that means admission to next year's Champions League.

Montella is going to be a key contributor in what coach Gigi Delneri labelled "our seventeen cup finals from now on" - the remaining Serie A matches in plain speak - but whatever that contribution in the next few weeks will be, it is unlikely Roma would be here now had it not been for Montella's wonderful season so far.

His seventeen goals - that number, again - lead all scorers in Italy, bettering the idle Adriano's 14 and Shevchenko's 13 without the aid of a single penalty - Totti takes those, of course - and his form has been so brilliant that it is not unreasonable to believe he will figure prominently in Marcello Lippi's plans for the national team for the 2006 World Cup.

It would be an ironic twist of fate for the 30-year-old striker who only two years ago, in one of the darker moments of his career, had announced he was retiring from international football. He's been back in an Azzurri shirt since, playing for Lippi in the friendly against Finland, and showed the skills that had first propelled him into the limelight at 17, in the spring of 1992.

Then, Montella was thrust into the first-team at then Serie C1 Empoli by current Palermo coach Francesco Guidolin, and went on to score four goals in five matches, but soon leg injuries and a bout of viral infection clipped his wings and nearly ended his career. He missed almost two full seasons before returning for the 1994-95 campaign and netting 17 goals in 30 matches.

“ Those with a penchant for lip-reading would have blushed at the words Montella uttered at Capello after being taken off too early for his liking. ”

Despite an earlier approach by Juventus, Genoa signed him and got 21 goals in 34 Serie B matches and a promotion to Serie A in return, before city rivals Sampdoria snatched him in the summer of 1996. Three years and 54 goals later, with Samp struggling to return to the glory years of the Scudetto, Montella was on his way to Roma after another prolonged transfer deal which ultimately saw him go for a massive 25 million euros, immediately becoming the Giallorossi's top scorer with 18 goals and striking up a good understanding with Totti.

He scored 13 in 28 games in Roma's memorable run to their third Scudetto in his second year, 2000-01, despite having to play second fiddle to Gabriel Batistuta, whom he refused to give up his number 9 shirt to. He memorably clashed with coach Fabio Capello a few times, and those with a penchant for lip-reading would have blushed at the words he uttered after being taken off too early or brought on too late for his liking.

His subsequent tally of 13, nine and five goals in the following seasons tells only part of the story, as injuries again took their toll and at one point sidelined him for three months. It was widely believed Montella would be wearing a different colour shirt at the beginning of the current season, but the reluctance of prospective takers and Roma's outrageous requests meant no move was made for him.

With his nemesis Capello gone and new coach Cesare Prandelli in - only to leave his position in mid-summer to tend to his ill wife - Montella started the campaign well with the only goal in the 1-0 win over Fiorentina on the opening day. He added a hat-trick in Roma's second-day defeat at Messina and hasn't looked back since, the climax being a spectacular scissors kick at Chievo two weeks ago.

His excellent performances have provided first Rudy Voller then Delneri in particular with the opportunity to play in an unorthodox - for Delneri at least - 4-3-3, the only way Montella, Totti and Cassano can be on the pitch at the same time. That trio has scored 34 of Roma's 40 goals so far this season and Montella has again been showing off his skills not only as a clinical finisher but also as a provider, which sets him apart from the stereotype of the selfish forward.

Predominantly left-footed, he tends to shift to the right of Roma's three-pronged attack so that his left foot is in a better position to shoot when he drifts towards the centre, but just watching him this season one can understand he's no one-dimensional player.

Capello: Montella's former boss and nemesis. (TonyMarshall/Empics)

Ironically, as a kid in his birthplace near Naples, Vincenzo had longed to be a goalkeeper, but a lack of height had convinced him his future lay elsewhere. Only a short time later, while with Empoli at a youth tournament in Switzerland, he so impressed then Neuchatel Xamax coach Uli Stielike that the German allegedly handed a bemused Empoli director a blank cheque in exchange for Montella, an offer which was immediately turned down.

Now, while it would be a huge stretch to say he's turned from gamekeeper to poacher, since his goalkeeping ambitions never went past a few matches between the sticks, it is true Montella has become a terror for opposing defenders. His physical build helps him: despite being on the small side at 1.72 metres, he's strong and can hold off defenders - a skill which has allowed him to play as a lone striker at times - and to outmuscle defenders when going for a cross.

His huge confidence - a trait all great goalscores share - has helped him overcome recurrent injury problems and a deeply disappointing and much publicised split from his wife Rita two years ago. They had looked the perfect couple and posed together for a set of photos you - and perhaps Vincenzo himself - wouldn't want to see on this website or even less reputable others, before Rita's budding acting and TV career also contributed to their separation, which I guess should be termed as "messy" (aren't they all).

I'm not fond of gossiping and only report this because it obviously had an impact on Montella's morale. And, hey, it was all over the papers at that time and you would have had to be living in a cave to miss it. While I am happy to report I have no update on Montella's private life and have no intention of adding to my knowledge on that matter, it is clear that whatever Vincenzo has been doing, it has done him a world of good.

Watch out for him in those seventeen cup finals, then, and for his trademark celebration - arms spread out with an accompanying wing-like motion - which have earned him the nickname L'aeroplanino (the little aeroplane).

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