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Case for Cassano growing stronger

The verdict across Sunday's sporting press in Italy was almost unanimous.

The verdict across Sunday's sporting press in Italy was almost unanimous. Sampdoria's 4-1 win over Bologna owed something, naturally, to their lively and in-form goalscorers, Giampaolo Pazzini and Daniele Manini. But the inspiration had been Antonio Cassano, the player of the season so far. "Another Cassano Spectacular," cooed the Corriere dello Sport while Gazzetta applauded Cassano's "genius". Corriere duly reached for the populist card, and pleaded: "Surely time for the national squad to find a place for him."

It seems that only the shallowest statistics are becoming a worthwhile alibi for Marcello Lippi, the head coach of Italy, as he remains unmoved by the impact Cassano is having on the Serie A season. They are the goals. Curiously, the enfant terrible of Italian football has not scored for Samp since August 30, an ordinary run even by the standards of some of his more wayward months - and there have been some - as a footballer. But the contributions Cassano is making to his current club's sustained presence in the top two of the league are otherwise brilliant. He directly set up two goals at the weekend and dextrously pulled the opposition this way and that throughout. He was man of the match, not for the first time, and if we set any store by statistics, it should be noted he now has six assists for goals so far this term.

Lippi prefers to let his reasons for ignoring Cassano be guessed at, allowing it to be assumed that the player's difficult reputation, the acknowledged problems he has had in the past conforming to some of the disciplines required of a professional athlete, count against him. But Cassano's sincere words about mending his ways, focusing again on the game he loves are being backed up every week by his displays for the Genoa club.

He is playing with energy, imagination and the sort of stamina that genuinely makes his lax fitness, a difficulty he admitted while living it up at Real Madrid, look like a thing of the distant past. Against Bologna, Cassano lit the game's fuse, skipping down the flank to cross for Pazzini's early strike. Cassano and Pazzini have developed quite a partnership, and in case the goalscorer needed any extra identifying, his mask, worn to protect the facial injury picked up at Lazio a week earlier, was a signpost. It had Pazzini's number and name printed in to the Zorro-style face piece. After Pazzini had set up Mannini's stunning volley and Reto Ziegler thumped in a third, Cassano bamboozled two opponents to deliver the centre for Mannini to head in Samp's fourth.

Afterwards, Gigi Del Neri, the coach of Sampdoria, the season's most beguiling upstarts, must have felt like Lippi, his press conference dominated by questions about Cassano. "We are playing well as unit," said Del Neri, keen to share the credit for his side's sixth win of the campaign, "but we also have outstanding individuals. And, yes, Cassano has been decisive." Cassano has plenty of cheerleaders elsewhere, too, with the former Sampdoria favourite, Roberto Mancini, adding his voice to the many who want Lippi call him up: "I like watching players like him, simple as that," said Mancini.

The case for Cassano to be recalled to the Azzurri will go on. The idea that he might inspire Sampdoria into the Champions League by May is a longer shot. But Samp could go to the top of the table tomorrow night if they beat Juventus, who beat Siena 1-0 on Sunday to record their first league win in a month. And this is a vulnerable Serie A for clubs outside the traditional elite, clubs like Sampdoria, to chase. Milan once again went behind early, before a late recovery for a 2-1 win at Chievo, and Roma lost, 1-0, at home to Livorno.


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