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Antonio Cassano is a Sampdoria hero.
Antonio Cassano is a Sampdoria hero.

Cassano is showing signs of maturity

The precocious talent polarises opinion, but Sampdoria's controversial striker claims he is reformed and is aiming for Lippi's World Cup squad.

Antonio Cassano boarded a private jet in Madrid and let out a huge sigh of relief. Another snatched holiday was ahead of him, to be spent partying in Rome. His cousin was on board the plane with him, and, by his own testament, he was anticipating 24 hours of bad, irresponsible behaviour. "It was then," recalled Cassano, "that I took a good look at myself and said: 'This guy is on his way to a sad end'."

At least, that's the confession Cassano made on Friday to the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in a frank interview partly aimed at persuading Italy's football public that the game's most controversial maverick has matured and can be trusted to make the most of his considerable talents. Cassano's Sampdoria, until last week the surprise pacesetters in Serie A, play the champions Inter Milan today and it is an opportunity for Cassano to showcase the form that has made him the subject of passionate discussion around Italy for much of the last 12 months.

Samp have been thriving in large part because the gamble they took in recruiting the 27-year-old has paid off; the big debate surrounds whether he should be recalled to the national squad in the lead-up to the World Cup. Plenty argue that his wayward past testifies to an untrustworthy character, not the sort to take to a long international tournament. Plenty of others think that Italy cannot afford to ignore his brilliance. At the moment, national coach Marcello Lippi belongs in the first camp.

Jose Mourinho, the Inter head coach, is not so dogmatic. His club tentatively explored the possibility of recruiting Cassano earlier this year, but instead renewed their forward line with the uncontroversial Diego Milito and with a different sort of maverick, Samuel Eto'o. Neither of those would be likely to unburden himself on the pages of Gazzetta full of remorse and admissions of self-disgust. But the reformed Cassano does, taking up the themes of his candid autobiography, published earlier this year, and reminding Lippi, among others, that he is fully aware that he was unprofessional for a chunk of his career, but that he has mended his ways.

Transferring to Real Madrid, who recruited him from Roma, where he had become the world's most expensive teenager, was a mistake, he now says. He never established a place in the first-team and partied at nights, letting his physical fitness suffer. Sampdoria, he adds, had reawakened his enthusiasm for the game, made him think of the team ahead of the individual. "I can't imagine anybody could be happier than I am right now," he claims, "because of everything being at Sampdoria has given me. I look back on the Madrid time and know it was an error to go there, but it made my spirit stronger suffering those setbacks." Consistent form, he hopes, will oblige Lippi to call him up, and he wants to continue an international career that started young and fell away.

It is a big day, too, for Serie A's other enduring maverick, Cristiano Lucarelli. Lucarelli's Livorno take on Fiorentina in the Tuscan derby and will look to their ageing totem to rise to an occasion that will genuinely move him. Lucarelli is one of a rare species in the modern game, a fan of the club who employ him. He is in his second spell with Livorno after a much-travelled career in which goals have usually come at a good rate and controversy been a feature. Like Cassano, Lucarelli was viewed with suspicion as a young man, not least when, on scoring for the Italy Under 21 team, he stripped off his Azzurri shirt to reveal a T-shirt bearing the image of Che Guevara. That identified him strongly with Livorno, whose supporters carry to matches left-wing paraphernalia and celebrate the city's long tradition of socialism.

Lucarelli has always been very public about espousing the same views, which makes him popular on the curvas at Livorno, but eyed with mistrust by some of the Italian football establishment. What Livorno most need from Lucarelli tonight, though, is not gestures but goals. Newly promoted, they are struggling, and will hope that Fiorentina's boardroom upheavals - president Andrea Della Valle resigned on Wednesday - spread uncertainty onto the field.

ihawkey@thenational.ae Sampdoria v Inter Milan, KO 8pm, Aljazeera Sport + 1

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