Cesare Prandelli’s aim was for a sparkling Italy brimming with talent. He also strived to be in charge of an Azzurri squad which would reconnect with the fans following the South African disaster. One player to bring those elements together was Antonio Cassano.
The artistic attacker was perhaps the most talked-about Italian in June 2010 yet wasn’t even at the World Cup. Immediately returning to the Giro Azzurro for Prandelli’s first match, barring health problems the Bari native has been a mainstay during his reign. The tactician has placed a great deal of faith in Cassano, who has become pivotal in the forward line which “offers no reference points”.
Prandelli waited for Cassano to return from his heart issue and he is expected to have a huge say in Italy’s Eastern European adventure. Before the heart scare in October, he starred during qualifying, finishing with six goals as Italy convincingly won Group C. In the friendly versus Spain last August at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari, Cassano’s transformation from discarded to decisive was completed when handed the captaincy that night.
This will be Cassano’s third tilt at lifting the Henri Delaunay Trophy and Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia – who has never played at the World Cup – hopes to erase past international disappointments. At Euro 2004 he was a rare bright spot in Italy’s disappointing and controversial group stage exit, netting against Sweden and Bulgaria. His joy at scoring what appeared to be a crucial goal in the final match was offset by the news Sweden and Denmark were level.
Four years later Italy never truly recovered from 3-0 thumping at the hands of the Netherlands as Cassano tried in vain to lift a disjointed and ultimately unsatisfactory Azzurri outfit. He ended the tournament scoreless.
In the interim, numerous Cassanata incidents put the striker at loggerheads with Marcello Lippi. His immaturity and form did not merit a call-up for Germany 2006, but after toning down his behaviour at Sampdoria and leading the port-city club to the Champions League, Lippi still refused to pick the player deemed to upset squad harmony. Despite media and fan pressure – including a surreal lone-fan pitch invasion in Pescara – Lippi stuck to his guns as Italy failed to outfox the likes of New Zealand.
Two years on and Cassano – following a breakdown in the relationship with club President Riccardo Garrone causing his departure from Samp – has moved to Milan and built on the promise of his Blucerchiati days. Since returning to action in April Cassano has shown glimpses of his best, even if his fitness may still be a concern.
Despite limited appearances in 2011-12 he managed three goals, 10 assists and was just shy of three key passes per match – sitting within the top five in Serie A for the latter two categories. Prandelli is counting on Cassano to cast aside the false starts and illustrate his creative genius on the highest stage.
With Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings from deep, Cassano, now 29, will be vital further afield, both creatively – given the issues in fielding a suitable trequartista – and as a finisher. Italy have scored just twice since Cassano’s problem, while Antonio Di Natale – not assured of a starting spot – is the only other striker to have played at a major tournament. In addition, the four other attackers in the squad have just 11 goals for Italy – Di Natale 10 and Mario Balotelli one – between them.
It may not be a squad filled with world-class individuals as the tactician admitted, but he knows there is one such player in his forward line, a player looking to make up for lost time.
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