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Feb 18, 2009

Juve ready to gamble on Cassano

This time last year Antonio Cassano stormed off the Sampdoria pitch, bare-chested, red-carded and with tears in his eyes after throwing his shirt at a referee in a fit of pique. It was another blot on an already stained copybook for the controversial Italian striker and the subsequent five-match ban left his top-flight career in jeopardy.

Fast forward 12 months and the hot-headed striker, once described in this very column as a "crack-pot", has shed his antagonistic image and is on the verge of rubber-stamping a remarkable rehabilitation with a summer move to Juventus.

That incident back in March appears to have been when Cassano hit rock-bottom. On-loan at Sampdoria after being bounced out of Real Madrid for criticising the manager, he appeared set to win a permanent contract with the Genoa club and was on the brink of the Italy squad for Euro 2008 before his self-destruction.

But with a warning from Sampdoria general director Beppe Marotta that the last chance to rebuild his career was slipping away the Bari-born forward turned things around. Some inspired displays for the Blucerchiati sealed a free transfer move from Madrid by the end of the season and an unlikely place in Roberto Donadoni's Azzurri squad.

Since then the Bianconeri have been closely monitoring the performances of the Italian international and what's more, when club president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli admitted his interest in signing Cassano he described the 26-year-old as "a lad who is becoming a man". A comment that implies Cassano is finally ready for his undoubted talent to grab the headlines instead of the indiscipline and hot-headed outbursts that have marred his career to date.

Once described as the 'The future of Italian football' by then Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni, following his €28m transfer from Bari to Serie A Champions Roma in 2001, petulance has prevented those lofty predictions from coming true. And although Cassano has kept his nose clean for a year, apart from a slight altercation with the Sampdoria fans who dared to boo the team, Serie A giants Juventus would still be taking a gamble in signing him. After all, it was in the full glare of the media spotlight at title challengers Roma that things began to unravel.

Following his arrival at i Giallorossi Cassano quickly fell out with manager Fabio Capello after being omitted from a training match - prompting the coach to coin the phrase Cassanata, which is still used by the Italian press to describe any behaviour that has a negative effect on team spirit.

However, Cassano's behaviour under Capello was almost angelic compared with the disputes that marred his career under successive coaches at Roma. Luigi Del Neri omitted him from the squad for the 2004/05 campaign and although Bruno Conti later reinstated Cassano, and made him stand-in captain on occasion, the player's contract dispute with Luciano Spalletti saw him booted out of the club in 2006. The striker famously left for Real Madrid without saying a word to his former team-mates.

Re-united with Capello at the Santiago Bernabeu, Cassanata was back to his old tricks. Following his omission from the team for a game against Gimnastic de Tarragona the miffed striker lambasted his coach in the dressing room and reportedly said to Capello: "Have you got no shame? I fought for you in Rome and this is how you repay me?".

Once out in the cold, and publicly ridiculed by Real president Ramon Calderon on Spanish radio, Cassano claimed he had made a mistake in leaving Italy and would walk all the way back to Roma. But with Giallorossi golden-boy Francesco Totti still at the club and still disgruntled by the pair's falling-out that was never going to happen, so Sampdoria offered him a lifeline.

Following Cassano's messy exit from Madrid friend and colleague Fabio Cannavaro said: "I have always defended Antonio but this time it's impossible to do so. Antonio has incredible quality, out of the ordinary, but he is as strong as he is mad."

Those words from his international captain seemed to perfectly sum up the fiery forward when he again blew his top during the shirt-throwing debacle at Sampdoria.

But now Cassano appears to have cleaned up his act and the man who gave him his first Serie A start as a 17-year-old at Bari, Eugenio Fascetti, believes his former player is back to his best and "ready to wear the Juventus kit".

"I'm tired of hearing criticism about Cassano. We cannot always doubt our talented footballers," Fascetti said. "Antonio is always crucial and it would be the same if he was on the Bianconeri."

Although worryingly the key to keeping Juventus' €20m investment from erupting at the Stadio delle Alpi appears to be the heart of a teenage girl. Cassano credits falling in love with 17-year-old water polo player Carolina Marcialis, whilst on loan at Sampdoria, as one of the main reasons for his apparent mellowing.

"Carolina has changed my life," Cassano told an Italian magazine in August last year. "I love the girl, I'm happy." And the lovestruck striker recently claimed she is "the one".

His fiancé should be credited with not only calming Cassano's wild side on the pitch but also off it. In his autobiography Dico Tutto (I'll Tell Everything) the striker claimed that he's bedded over 600 women and during his short stay in Madrid the hotel bell boy would be tasked with delivering post-sex pastries to his suite and spiriting away various beauties.

And while Cassano's love life may seem trivial, if the curbing of Cassano's wayward antics truly hangs on the affection of a teenage girl then any transfer would represent a great gamble indeed for Juve.

In terms of footballing ability, the Turin club may well see Cassano as the eventual replacement for 34-year-old Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero. Their hardest task will be keeping the complicated forward placated until the day he becomes the top dog.

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