Cesare Prandelli admitted after Euro 2012 that he was moving in a different direction. This meant, perhaps shockingly, no place for Antonio Cassano. Not for the first time, the Bari native would have to overcome obstacles to prove himself worthy of the Italian shirt.
As Italy set about securing their World Cup spot in record time, Prandelli still found no place for FantAntonio. Even when impressing at new club Parma he looked a snowball’s chance in hell. “I have 0.0 per cent chance of making the World Cup,” Cassano declared in January.
Then, a glimmer of hope. “After the European Championship we wanted to look forward. Cassano was 30 years old and we thought that other players would develop,” Prandelli said in March. “If these players have not developed as we had hoped and a player is playing better at 32 than he did at 30, then why not [select him]?”
Nonetheless, Cassano still looked likely to miss his third World Cup. Prandelli: “I must give the utmost faith in a squad that took us to the World Cup with two matches to spare.” Never considered by Marcello Lippi, Cassano’s biggest impact at a major tournament was in his third, at Euro 2012.
There he formed an exciting partnership with Mario Balotelli. The ex-Sampdoria man started all six matches, but having just returned from heart surgery, did not have the legs to finish any. He started alongside Balotelli five times and netted once. It has taken nearly two years to see Cassano don the shirt once more.
A stellar season – 12 goals in 34 games – for Parma was the result of a more focused FantAntonio. “I’m a player that has had and thrown away a lot of opportunities, and I’ve always been that way. But now I want to think less about what has been and more about the present. The present is what I would like to have – the World Cup,” he declared earlier this year.
Prandelli obliged: “He put himself back up for the challenge and he won. At that age, he realised it was his last chance.”
Cassano was included in the 30-man preliminary squad and by all reports impressed sufficiently at Coverciano to be assured a spot. Following a friendly with the Republic of Ireland, Cassano realised his dream. Against Luxembourg last week he showed the flair and invention of a player enjoying his football. Cassano immediately created openings for Balotelli, rekindling memories of two years prior.
At this World Cup Prandelli has a number of systems up his sleeve and Cassano could play an important role in just about all. He links up well with Balotelli – Super Mario leading the line and Cassano allowed to roam. They do not crowd each other’s space and have enough different characteristics to complement one another. He was one of the two attacking players behind Balotelli against Luxembourg and looked impressive. Cassano would also prove useful in a trident attack. That’s the sort of versatility Prandelli is counting on. And there’s not the fitness issues of Euro 2012 to deal with. A leaner Cassano played 90 minutes for Parma in 18 of his 33 Serie A starts.
What Cassano and Balotelli hold over the other attacking options is international experience, and as a result, goals. They are the only ones to have participated in a major tournament and with 12 and 10 goals respectively, are the most prolific.
If not them, who could start against England? A Corriere dello Sport poll asked whether Ciro Immobile or Balotelli should play and the overwhelming response – 86 per cent to 14 – favoured the new Borussia Dortmund striker. Immobile was Serie A’s leading scorer and showed his prowess against Fluminense by netting a hat-trick. Would Prandelli play both? “Everything is possible, but playing two central strikers when you have quality players in midfield tends to be a forced decision.”
It’s not the end of the decision making. Aside from Cassano, there’s Lorenzo Insigne to consider. He was on the end of two Immobile assists on Sunday and recalling their days at Pescara, said: “Even though we haven’t played together at club level for two years, we still need just a glance to understand each other.” Immobile’s other partner in crime, Alessio Cerci, is another who can make use of the space in behind a main striker.
Prandelli could take the framework from Luxembourg and look towards one – or both – of Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva. The pair would also be charged with stemming the flow from England’s full-backs.
Yet from having no chance of making the squad to an impressive return, it would not be a surprise to see Cassano make an impact. He and Balotelli showed what they could do two years ago and for FantAntonio, an impressive tournament would be the culmination of a personal and professional rejuvenation.