Thursday February 24 2011
Italy's Cafu and Candela

They're widely regarded as two of Italy's best full-backs, but it has been a long road to the top for Mattia Cassani and Federico Balzaretti, as Scott Fleming reveals

Making your way in Serie A can be a bit like a game of monopoly. One costly blunder, serious injury, or act of indiscipline, and you can be sent back to the start.

Two men who can testify to that are Palermo defenders Mattia Cassani and Federico Balzaretti. If you had told them a few years ago that they would simultaneously be contenders for a starting shirt with the Italian national team they would have laughed. If you told anyone else they would have said: "Who?"

Ironically, for two players who have become so inseparable that they share a facebook fans page, they grew up on opposite sides of the Turin divide, Cassani with Juventus and Balzaretti with Torino.

Balzaretti was Turin born and bred and went on to captain the Granata. Cassani hailed from Borgomanero, further north, and never really made himself at home in Turin, making just one brief appearance for Juve against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League. By 2005 he was down in Serie B with Verona, whereas Balzaretti had led Torino in the opposite direction. Or so it seemed.

Torino's promotion was repealed due to finance problems and Juve compounded Toro's misery by swooping for their captain. 'Balzac' made a respectable number of appearances for the Bianconeri under Fabio Capello in Serie A and Didier Deschamps in Serie B, but was never more than a squad player.

He switched to Fiorentina in 2007, but failed to impress Cesare Prandelli and was on the move again six months down the line, when Palermo took a punt on him. And that's what it was – a punt, a gamble, as up until that point Balzaretti had done little to suggest that he could follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Fabio Grosso. Cassani, meanwhile, had already been in Sicily for two years, his hard graft in Verona having paid off with a transfer to the Rosanero in 2006.

Since then? They've made up for lost time, to say the least. The dynamic duo have proved themselves as two of the best attacking full-backs in Italy, if not Europe. They're speedy, skilful, sophisticated and endlessly energetic.

Palermo's success, and their reputation as one of the most entertaining sides around, owes a great deal to the pair. Cassani and Balzaretti don't make the occasional foray up field, they play a huge part in their team's attacking efforts, supplying 17 assists between them in the last season and a half.

They would both have perhaps started for Italy in the recent Germany friendly were it not for an injury to Balzaretti. Nonetheless, it seems certain that they will be two of the cornerstones of Prandelli's new age Azzurri.

Quite an achievement for two men whose career paths have occasionally been as slippery as Julio Cesar's gloves last night. Their struggles have shaped them.

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