On the eve of the new Serie A season, Luca Toni was asked what kept him coming back for more. The striker had already played for 15 different clubs during the course of his professional career, winning the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, a European Golden Shoe with Fiorentina and the World Cup with Italy. And now, at 36 years old, he had taken a 40% pay cut to sign for his 16th, the newly promoted Hellas Verona.
"Running after a football, scoring goals, celebrating and suffering in a stadium has been my whole life," he told Gazzetta dello Sport. "As long as I am enjoying myself I will continue to do it … I know that there are certain sensations that only football can give you, so I will think very seriously before I walk away."
He paused for a moment before adding: "I do have one objective left that I want to achieve. I am on 271 goals [in my career so far]; I would like to reach 300."
Scoring 29 goals in Verona would be no mean feat. Toni was a prolific striker in his prime, yet the truth is that he has not reached double figures in a single season since he was playing for Bayern back in 2008-09. Verona, meanwhile, were listed as the bookies' joint-third-favourites for relegation ahead of the opening weekend; they had not played in the top flight since 2001-02.
Nor had they been afforded the gentlest of starts. Verona's opponents on the season's opening weekend would be Milan, second-favourites for the scudetto and the team who picked up more points than anybody else in the second-half of last season. The Rossoneri had recorded a creditable 1-1 draw in the away leg of their Champions League qualifier against PSV Eindhoven four days before travelling to Verona.
Within 15 minutes of kick-off on Saturday, Milan were ahead. The first goal of the season arrived from the boot of their new signing Andrea Poli, who skipped between two defenders before stroking the ball into the far corner of the net. The midfielder had been played in by his team-mate Mario Balotelli, whose rasping drive just a few minutes earlier had to be pushed away at full stretch by the Verona goalkeeper Rafael.
Already this had the feel of a game that could only go one way. Perhaps Milan believed it themselves. That is the best excuse you could give for their defending in the 34th minute, when they contrived to leave Toni unmarked at a corner. Even 36 years from now, the striker could still probably be relied upon to convert such a presentable opportunity.
He duly did so, heading past a stranded Christian Abbiati before wheeling away to celebrate in his customary style, cupping one hand over his ear. But his job was only half done. Less than 10 minutes into the second half, Toni struck again, heading Bosko Jankovic's cross home at the far post at the end of a blistering Verona counterattack .
Milan, shell-shocked, could not respond. They were unfortunate to be denied a penalty when Balotelli was brought down by Evangelos Moras in the 90th minute but otherwise had created few clear chances. The game finished 2-1 to Verona.
It was a surprising result, and yet somehow all too familiar. Milan have consistently started their seasons poorly under Massimiliano Allegri – failing to win their opening games for the past two years. Verona, furthermore, have shocked the Rossoneri on greater occasions than this. In both 1973 and 1990, they denied Milan the scudetto with victories in this fixture.
La Repubblica mooted that this defeat could do Allegri's team some good, on the grounds that it would remove any complacency before the return leg against PSV, but it also exposed some weaknesses. Milan's defending was poor throughout but their vulnerability at set pieces was glaring. This is a long-standing area of concern, and it is troubling that the manager appears not to have addressed it over the summer.
Allegri may have some new players to work with by the end of this month, though much will depend on the result of that second leg against PSV. Milan have been linked with Adem Ljajic and Keisuke Honda, both talented but neither are a solution at the back.
Verona, meanwhile, were left to celebrate a double victory. Not only did their team claim three points on the pitch, but their stadium was free from racist chanting. It had been feared that the club's notoriously vicious supporters would target Balotelli, with rumours circulating that gorilla masks and bananas had been stockpiled. The striker promised to punish them with a goal if he was abused.
Instead, those fans took a different route. Ultras in the Curva Sud posted flyers calling on their fellow fans to cheer instead of booing. "One step ahead of everyone, as always!" it read. "Everyone is expecting monkey noises, but we will give them applause. Everyone is taking us for granted, so we will shock them again. Our line is to applaud."
That message was duly heeded. Balotelli's touches were met with an ovation from the stands. At some points the home support even chanted his first name. Their tone was deeply sarcastic, of course, but most commentators agreed that this was a step in a better direction.
It also meant that the headlines could go to Toni, rather than events off the pitch. "He might not be getting better with age like a good wine," wrote Marco Gaetano in La Repubblica. "But certainly he is not becoming vinegar."
Toni has now scored 41 headed goals in Serie A – just three behind the all-time record-holder, Oliver Bierhoff. Rather than relying on past glories, though, he deserves praise for his performance on Saturday. More than just scoring his team's goals, he sacrificed himself for the team with endless running and powerful hold-up play. Toni touched the ball 47 times against Milan, and gave it away just three.
Afterwards he dedicated his goals to his wife, Marta, and daughter, Bianca. "I didn't score a third," he quipped, "because I wouldn't have known who to dedicate it to!"
For all the lightheartedness of Toni's remark, this was an emotional moment. He and Marta had been devastated last summer when their first child was stillborn, and the striker wept on the pitch after scoring his first goal of the season for Fiorentina just a few short months later. Bianca was born to them in June. At the end of Saturday's game, one reporter asked Toni if he would tell her about his goalscoring exploits. "She doesn't understand much at the moment," he laughed. "In a while I might try to tell her and see how she responds."
In the meantime he will continue to focus on his footballing goals. Two-hundred and seventy-three down; 27 left to go.
• Lazio's Curva Nord was closed to fans on Sunday as a punishment for racist chanting heard during the team's defeat to Juventus in the preseason Super Cup. The club also made a gesture of its own, placing a logo with the words "We love football. We fight racism" on their players' shirts. As for the match itself, Lazio responded well – beating Udinese 2-1. The highlight was this vicious left-footed finish from Hernanes, who curiously spent a part of this summer training by picking up a pen with his toes and trying to write with it. "I couldn't actually write with my toes," Hernanes confessed to Sky Italia after the match. "But I tried … and it helped."
• "An extraordinary start," was the verdict of the Napoli owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, after his team beat Bologna 3-0 in Rafa Benítez's first game in charge. New signing José Callejón scored the game's opening goal, and the next two came from Marek Hamsik. "Cavani who?" asked La Repubblica's Fabrizio Bocca on the newspaper's blog, while another headline on their website proclaimed: "We have found the alternative to Juventus." It was left to Benítez himself to strike a more restrained note. "I'm not surprised by the result," he said. "I saw our team during the week and they were good. But we can and must get better."
•Benítez wasn't the only new manager to get off to a strong start. His predecessor at Napoli, Walter Mazzarri, steered Inter to a 2-0 win over Genoa, while Rudi Garcia's Roma won by the exact same margin against newly promoted Livorno. Garcia was picked up by the TV cameras speaking on his phone during the game, and caught off-guard afterwards when journalists informed him that doing so was banned in Italy. "I'll be fined?" he said. "Really? I used it because my radio wasn't working: I speak to [Frédéric] Bompard, my tactics coach, who follows the first half from high up in the stands."
• Erik Lamela was an unused substitute for the Giallorossi, and the expectation remains that he will depart before the end of this transfer window. "Erik is a player that any manager would like," said Garcia at his pre-game press conference on Saturday. "But sometimes economic needs come before sporting ones. But I have faith in the club that if a player goes, another one of the same level will come in."
• The Inter owner, Massimo Moratti, denied reports that a deal is already in place for the Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir to take over a majority share in the club. Asked by Sky Sport Italia if this was his last game as president of the club, Moratti replied: "It's not nice to say it's the last. I don't like it, and I don't believe it. Discussions are underway with Thohir, but an agreement has not yet been reached. If we find one, good, otherwise it will remain as before."
• Juventus began their pursuit of a third consecutive scudetto with a 1-0 win over Sampdoria played out under a downpour in Genoa. Carlos Tevez was the goalscorer, and once again distinguished himself with a hard-working performance. He was named as man of the match by Gazzetta, though many others would contend that Paul Pogba – who provided the assist – was once again the real star of the show.
Results: Cagliari 2-1 Atalanta, Inter 2-0 Genoa, Lazio 2-1 Udinese, Livorno 0-2 Roma, Napoli 3-0 Bologna, Parma 0-0 Chievo, Sampdoria 0-1 Juventus, Torino 2-0 Sassuolo, Verona 2-1 Milan.