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Aug 23, 2012

Trading places: Cassano and Pazzini

When assessing how realistic a transfer rumor is, you can be fairly confident that any mooted "exchange" deal won't happen, especially when big-name players are involved. They're often touted, but they rarely happen.

Therefore, it's particularly exciting when an exchange does take place. Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic swapping clubs three years ago was an astonishing transfer. The consensus was that Inter Milan had got themselves a great deal. They were signing Eto'o plus receiving a significant sum of money from Barcelona, which they used to strengthen the rest of their side. Inter went onto win the European Cup that year, winning the semifinal against Barcelona, which was still wondering what to do with Ibrahimovic.

Inter are also involved in this summer's high-profile exchange transfer, this time with the club they share the San Siro stadium with. They've taken Antonio Cassano from AC Milan, while Giampaolo Pazzini has gone the other way. Again, most believe that Inter have done well, not least because Milan have also given them 7 million euros.

Despite being fierce rivals, the Milan clubs aren't unaccustomed to swapping players. In the early 2000s, the likes of Francesco Coco, Andres Guglielminpietro, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Dario Simic and Cristian Brocchi were all involved in convoluted exchange deals. These moves, often surprisingly misjudged by Inter, were blamed on creative accounting, to generate "false profit" in both clubs' books. Remember Paolo Ginestra, Drazen Brncic or Matteo Bogani? Probably not -- none were truly talented enough for either club, but all were involved in this suspicious activity. Thomas Helveg, signed from Milan by Inter in November 2000 yet loaned back to the Rossoneri for the next three and a half years, was a particularly bizarre case.

It's peculiar that Cassano and Pazzini find themselves swapping clubs, because they're actually at their best when used up front alongside each other. Both produced their best individual form together at Sampdoria between 2008 and 2010 – they took the club to fourth, and a Champions League qualifying place. Cassano got the creative freedom he needed, drifting in from the left toward the edge of the box, while Pazzini finally realized his potential because Luigi Del Neri used him along with two proper wingers, who sped down the touchline before crossing. It was so successful that Cesare Prandelli briefly attempted to base the Italian national side around the Sampdoria combination.

By the January transfer window of 2010-11, both were gone. Cassano had an almighty row with Sampdoria chairman Riccardo Garrone because he didn't want to attend an awards ceremony, and was effectively released, then picked up by Milan. Pazzini went in a more courteous manner, as he was simply sold to Inter. Sampdoria's reliance upon those two was obvious; the side was relegated at the end of the season.

On the pitch, Cassano had the better experience in Italy's second-largest city. He helped Milan to the title within six months of his signing, and started 2011-12 in tremendous form until he suffered a serious stroke in early November. At first, it appeared career-threatening, but Cassano returned to Serie A before the end of the season and played a significant role at Euro 2012.

Pazzini found life at Inter difficult. He was forced to play under four coaches – Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini, Claudio Ranieri and Andrea Stramaccioni – in just 18 months, and although the system changed frequently, he couldn't co-exist alongside Diego Milito. Last season, he managed just five goals in 33 appearances, which makes it strange that Milan had to pay cash in addition to losing Cassano.

Former Italian left back Coco, one of those involved in a previous exchange between the clubs, summed up most people's thoughts. "It would have been fairer without the money," he said. "Milan are the losers here because they have to put their hand in their pocket. It's a swap deal which is totally in Inter's favor."

But the money aspect can be explained rationally: Pazzini had a year longer left on his contract than Cassano, and is also two years younger, meaning more re-sale value. Besides, Cassano's health problems can't be overlooked – any future concerns and he'll surely be forced into retirement.

In fact, Milan might actually have got the better deal. Cassano is a fine talent, but it remains to be seen where he fits in at Inter -- Wesley Sneijder is Inter's chief creator, Rodrigo Palacio their second striker and Milito their goalpoacher.

Cassano is a useful option, and will allow for rotation, but he wasn't desperately needed. Still, he'll provide entertainment – he turned up at Inter wearing a T-shirt with the image of "South Park" character Eric Cartman clutching his crotch, declaring "Protect your largest organ!" Cartman, that is. Cassano was more diplomatic, announcing, "Finally, I am at the team I have always supported."

On the other hand, Milan needed a classic number nine to replace Ibrahimovic. It can field Robinho alongside him, and Kevin-Prince Boateng plays the attacking midfield role excellently. It would have been a disaster if Pato had continued as their first-choice striker as the Brazilian yesterday picked up his 15th separate injury since the start of 2010, and simply isn't a reliable option for a title challenger.

This, then, is Pazzini's big chance, his second chance at a top-level club, which he is rather fortunate to have been granted. Five goals last year was a poor return, yet remember the quality of the finishes, and it gives a taste of what he could be. At his most confident, Pazzini is a brilliant all-round striker, capable of brilliant movement across defenders towards the near post. He relies upon crosses played into the box, however, and Milan haven't played with proper wingers for well over a decade, preferring to flood the midfield and rely on an attacking midfielder to link the play. Either he or Milan will have to adjust their style, but don't underestimate Pazzini's raw quality.

What this transfer truly demonstrates, however, is a lack of money at the top of Italian football. Cassano wouldn't have been Inter's first choice, while Milan could have found more established strikers than Pazzini. But with poor cash flow and Financial Fair Play on the horizon, this is simply a double marriage of convenience. Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.