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Ilija Nestorovski, the late bloomer who took Serie A by storm against all odds

Palermo might be struggling in the relegation zone and on their way to Serie B, but they are still proud to have one of the most exciting strikers in Italy. The club that recognised the talents of Luca Toni, brought Edinson Cavani to Europe and scouted Paulo Dybala in the second division of Argentina have done it again. In Ilija Nestorovski, Palermo have unearthed a prolific scorer who is certain to be sold for a very hefty fee.

Without the Macedonia international, Palermo would have been totally hopeless already. Nestorovski has scored nine times and provided three assists, meaning he's been directly involved in 12 of the 19 goals the team has managed to score in 23 matches. Not bad for someone who cost just €500,000 from Inter Zapresic in the summer of 2016.

He is a true penalty-area predator, a master of the one-touch finish. Naturally left-footed, Nestorovski is very decent with his right too. In fact, he scored both of his goals in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Israel and Italy with his weaker foot. He is powerful and good in the air, but visionary and inventive nevertheless.

One of the most beautiful moments of the Serie A season was his majestic rabona assist to Robin Quaison to give Palermo an early lead at Sassuolo. They ended up suffering a 4-1 defeat, which pretty much sums up their season so far, but Nestorovski is not ready to give up yet. On Sunday, he scored the only goal in the crucial fixture against Crotone, which was -- quite bizarrely -- Palermo's first home win of the season.

Little wonder that he has been nicknamed "Nestogol" by adoring supporters and is compared to top stars. Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini likened him to Filippo Inzaghi -- and he is not the only one.

"Nestorovski's technical characteristics are very similar to Inzaghi," said Fabrizio Miccoli, himself a former fan favourite at Palermo.

It is quite incredible, therefore, that "the new Inzaghi" was on the verge of quitting football for good less than four years ago, when he was seemingly unable to put a foot right at a small club in a local Macedonian league. Nesterovski's route to recognition was tough in the extreme and at a certain stage his self-confidence was close to zero.

It could have been different. His start at Pobeda Prilep, his hometown's local club, was promising, and Nestorovski was even given the captain's armband aged 18. After scoring 10 goals in 15 matches at the start of the 2009-10 season, it became evident that a big move was needed, and Red Star Belgrade -- where Darko Pancev, arguably the best Macedonian striker ever, once starred -- were interested in signing him. However, the youngster chose Slovacko in the Czech Republic and it turned out to be a disastrous move.

Struggling with a language barrier, missing his home, often played out of position or left on the bench, Nestorovski was unable to make his mark, and his father later blamed the team for treating the striker unfairly. "They kept asking us for money," he said.

Nestorovski only scored twice in 18 months at Slovacko before going on an equally disappointing loan spell at Viktoria Zizkov. By the time he returned to Macedonia and signed a loan deal at Metalurg Skopje, his motivation had disappeared. Nestorovski felt that he would never become a footballer and he wasted another 18 months without playing regularly.

The striker was left without a club in the summer of 2013, when he unexpectedly got an offer to come for a trial at Inter Zapresic, just relegated to the second division in Croatia. He told his father that it was going to be his very last try. Had Zapresic not signed him, Nestorovski would have stopped playing at 23.

Luckily, coach Rajko Magic was impressed, and that was the turning point in the script. The man who had long been considered a flop became a star.

Nestorovski scored 20 goals in his first season at Zapresic and 24 in the second term as Inter returned to the top flight. While some doubted his abilty to adapt to a higher level, the striker became even more prolific and scored 25 of Zapresic's 39 goals in 2015-16. Not only was he crowned the top scorer, but it was actually the third highest total in the league history. Eduardo scored 34 times for Dinamo Zagreb in 2007 before moving to Arsenal and Goran Vlaovic netted 29 goals in 1994. Nesterovski came directly after them.

And yet, big clubs in Croatia were reluctant to sign him, considering him old fashioned and one dimensional. Zapresic coach Samir Toplak, who worked with Nestorovski for more than two years, was amazed.

"The club was ready to sell him for €200,000, but they were not interested. It's their loss. Ilija is a leader, a motivator, a guy full of confidence who never stops trying," Toplak said.

Unlike Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, Palermo are quick to purchase good players at low prices. President Zamparini didn't hesitate to sign Nestorovski midway through last campaign, even though the striker only came to Sicily in the summer. Just a few months later, it became clear that this was one of the biggest bargains in the club history, especially after Nestorovski scored a brilliant goal against Gianluigi Buffon on the international stage.

Napoli were more than willing to make a good offer for the player in January. "Nestorovski is extraordinary," Zamparini told Corriere dello Sport, "I wish other players were as stubborn and willing to fight. He deserves to become a captain. [Napoli owner Aurelio] De Laurentiis asked me about him, but I told him to come back in June, so he signed Leonardo Pavoletti [from Genoa]. However, Nestorovski is better and has a character of Gonzalo Higuain."

It is unclear whether De Laurentiis will call Zamparini again in the summer, but Nestorovski is definitely going to be one of the hottest names on the market. He will be 27 next month, but that shouldn't be held against him. After all, Toni was 28 when he left Palermo for Fiorentina in 2005, and the burly striker went on to make a brilliant career at Bayern Munich -- not to mention winning the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

Nestorovski won't reach those heights with his national team, but he could be starring in the Champions League next season, making his father -- who believed in him in the hardest of times -- very proud.