Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, took a call the other day from the head coach of Italy, Cesare Prandelli. Ferguson was a little surprised. So was the striker, Federico Macheda, about whom Prandelli had phoned Ferguson to ask. Macheda, 19, is several rungs down the strikers' hierarchy at United and best known as a player of impact cameo appearances, and perhaps one with future international potential.
Prandelli wanted to check with Ferguson how that future potential might be being realised. The Scot spoke positively enough, but the fact remains that Macheda, whose goals from the bench made headlines in the run-in of the Premier League 2008/09 title-race, has not exploded into pre-eminence since then. Which is why the word in Rome is that the player is looking at a possible loan back to Lazio, where he served his early apprenticeship.
Lazio, currently surveying the rest of Serie A from its summit as they sit level on points with Inter Milan, would seem, in the short-term, a more attractive site than the bench at United. But it is the fact that Prandelli felt Italy's senior team might have needed Macheda that raises an eyebrow. The coach knew he would be without 20-year-old Mario Balotelli, who is injured, and, in the end, the Italy squad to face Northern Ireland and Serbia over the next eight days did not include Macheda, who is picked for the Under 21s. But the pool of strikers actually named showed why Prandelli might be making the sort of long-shot call he put into Ferguson.
The Italy head coach keeps telling the Italian public he is keen to rejuvenate the Azzurri, look for young players but, Balotelli apart, he is struggling to locate them. Only one of the Serie A forwards selected for this week's matches has scored as many as three goals this season. That is Antonio Cassano, and two of his strikes were penalties. Besides, Cassano, 28, is not a spearhead striker.
That role will be given to one of Marco Borriello, 28, recalled to the Azzurri ranks after missing out on the World Cup squad; to Giampaolo Pazzini, 26, Cassano's Sampdoria teammate; or to Giuseppe Rossi, 23, the only non-Serie A footballer in the party. Alberto Gilardino, 28, the Fiorentina centre-forward and a veteran of the victorious 2006 World Cup campaign had to withdraw from the squad with injury.
Rossi is also the only striker at a club that can be regarded as having made a successful start to the season: Villarreal, for whom the diminutive Italian-American has scored three times, sit second in Spain's Primera Liga. Cassano's Sampdoria, Gilardino's Fiorentina and Borriello's Roma are all in the wrong half of the Italian top-flight. They are also mostly strikers whom more prestigious clubs have at various stages allowed to leave.
Gilardino was let go by AC Milan, after they invested heavily in his signature. Cassano's chequered history is well documented, and his most recent move was from Real Madrid, where he had been deemed superfluous. Borriello joined Roma at the end of August to make way, at Milan, for the more glamorous pair of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho. Rossi's backstory has something of the same. Like Macheda, he was recruited young by Manchester United. He was allowed to join Villarreal because he was not about to jump into the first team.
So Prandelli, with his commitment to youth, feels obliged to look outside the heavyweight clubs for his goalscorers. In Serie A, foreign strikers are in fashion at the two Milan giants and though Pippo Inzaghi, of Milan, still has his poacher's knack, he is closer to 40 than 30. Alessandro Del Piero and Vicenzo Iaquinta, who both played in Juventus' 0-0 draw at Inter on Sunday, are, at over 30, thought too long in the tooth while their new club colleague, Fabio Quagliarella, 27, has been dropped by Prandelli.
Italy should have see off Northern Ireland but, in the long run, much hope is still invested in the promise of Balotelli.