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By ESPN Staff
May 25, 2006

Toni ready to reprise 'Toto' 1990 role

MILAN, May 25 (Reuters) - Sixteen years ago Italy turned to Salvatore 'Toto' Schillaci as their World Cup striker despite the Sicilian's lack of international experience and this year in Germany coach Marcello Lippi is pinning his hopes on another player who has made a late surge in his career.

Unlike the vast majority of players going to the World Cup, Luca Toni has never played in the Champions League and he was virtually unknown outside Italy a year ago.

This season, however, Toni has been one of Europe's most dangerous strikers, leading the Serie A scoring charts throughout the campaign and establishing himself as Lippi's first-choice striker.

Like Schillaci, Toni is a late developer - he made his Serie A debut aged 23, for Vicenza in a 2-0 defeat to AC Milan in October 2000. The following year he moved on to Brescia, where he paired up with former World Footballer of the Year Roberto Baggio, then in the twilight of his career. It was a classic pairing of opposites.

Toni's job was to put his 1.93-metre frame at Baggio's service, working as a targetman or muscle to add the finishing touch to moves or give his partner more space and a fraction of a second longer on the ball.

They worked well together, for a season, at least. Toni scored 13 goals in 28 games in his first year with the north Italian side, but slipped into obscurity during his second, hitting the target just twice.

At the start of the 2003-04 season he was sold on to Palermo, then in Serie B. What appeared to be a step down, however, turned out to be an opportunity in disguise. In his first season in Sicily he scored 30 times to lead Palermo back into the top flight for the first time since 1973.

Many doubted he would prove quite so impressive against tighter Serie A defences but Toni made a triumphant return to Serie A, scoring 20 goals as Palermo finished sixth.

Fiorentina, rebuilding their team, believed that he would bring goals to the Stadio Franchi and spent £7 million on the striker, whose ungainly movement belies a canny positional sense.

It was money well spent - Toni has provided Fiorentina with the goalscoring striker they have lacked since the departure of their Argentine hero Gabriel Batistuta.

Lippi, was among the first to recognise his talent, calling him up to make his international debut in Italy's 2-0 friendly defeat to Iceland in August 2004 - Lippi's first match in charge after taking over from Giovanni Trapattoni.

Since then, he has developed into the leading striker of Lippi's tenure, with his scoring feats including a hat-trick in Italy's 4-1 win over World Cup qualifying rivals Belarus in September.