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By ESPN Staff

Cassano to bolster Milan challenge

AC Milan return to Serie A action on Thursday with club owner Silvio Berlusconi delighted to have acquired Antonio Cassano, a player he describes as "the most talented Italian player", over the festive period.

Cassano became available after a falling-out with Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone meant the club were eager to get shot of the controversial former Real Madrid playmaker. Milan were quick to step in as they look to bolster a squad which went into Christmas with a three-point lead at the top of the table.

Berlusconi met the squad on Tuesday and reserved words of praise for Cassano.

He said: "We are delighted that we have been able to add Cassano. He is the most talented Italian player. He has left behind a career which has had moments of darkness and we believe that Milan will give him the right environment to display his best qualities."

Cassano is likely to be thrust straight into the starting XI for Milan's trip to Cagliari on Thursday with Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended and Ronaldinho edging closer to a return his native Brazil.

Berlusconi is disappointed the former Barcelona man has opted to leave the San Siro.

He added: "I am sorry he will be leaving. He remains the greatest player in the world with regard to swiftness of thought and execution, but it is his choice to return to Brazil."

Defending champions Inter endured a disappointing first half to the season which culminated in the departure of coach Rafael Benitez who did, at least, sign off his short spell in charge by leading the club to the FIFA Club World Cup.

Former Milan boss Leonardo was swiftly installed and he will take charge of the Nerazzurri for the first time against second-placed Napoli.

He will have to do without Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar, however, as he is still suffering from a hamstring strain in his left leg. Luca Castellazzi will deputise for an Inter side who are down in seventh, 13 points behind their city rivals.

Lazio are level on points with Napoli having led the table for long periods. They resume with a trip to Genoa.

Juventus and Roma remain in Scudetto contention but will have to put together a period of improved form, starting with home clashes against Parma and Catania respectively.

Samp begin life without Cassano at Palermo, Udinese host Chievo and underachieving Fiorentina go to Bologna.

The battle to remain in the top flight is also intriguingly poised ahead of the resumption.

Bottom side Bari need to string some wins together if they are to make up the four-point difference between themselves and safety. They go to second-bottom Lecce on Thursday in what already looks a key game in the clubs' battle for survival.

Brescia, who currently occupy the final relegation spot, host fourth-bottom Cesena in another six-pointer.


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