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Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Azzurri seeking alternatives

Adam Digby

In recent games, they had been blossoming into a good partnership, each making his own vital contribution and working well together as a pair that, according to coach Cesare Prandelli, "gave the opposition defence no reference points". Now, however, Italy's attacking options have been seriously diminished thanks to some terrible news. First, Giuseppe Rossi went down with a serious knee injury; next Antonio Cassano had to undergo surgery to repair a small hole in his heart. Former Fiorentina boss Prandelli has just seven months before the European Championships kick off in Poland and Ukraine, and he has spent much of his 18 months in charge repairing the psychological damaged caused by the embarrassing first-round exit from last summer's World Cup by building a team around the two men Marcello Lippi failed to put on the plane to South Africa.
"It's really bad news for him and for us, but we will wait for him. All he has to do is to think of recovering with calmness. The day he returns to play then we will consider him again" - Prandelli on Cassano
They featured together in 13 of Prandelli's 16 games in charge of the national team and started alongside each other in four of the last five competitive games. The Azzurri qualified with two games remaining, conceded fewer goals than any other team (two) and recorded an encouraging 2-1 friendly win over Spain back in August. Cassano was a surprising leading scorer for Italy, his six goals complemented by four assists while Rossi added one goal and two assists. Then the Villarreal striker tore ligaments in his right knee and was told he faced six months out. News on AC Milan star Cassano was better than first thought, and he is scheduled to return within between four and six months after his own surgery last week. While their health is paramount, Prandelli must now search for an alternative solution, preparing to head to next summer's tournament without them given the timescale provided for their recovery. So who else is there to fire the Azzurri to glory? Giampaolo Pazzini: Inter (21 caps, 3 goals) Once an outcast under Prandelli at club level, the 27-year-old has thrived since moving to Milanese giants Inter in January 2010 for a cut-price €12 million (plus Jonathan Biabiany). He has scored 12 goals in 19 league games for the Nerazzurri since then, adding another two in just three Champions League appearances. His strike-rate for Italy is cause for concern, however, and his one-dimensional playing style is seemingly at odds with the coach's desire to create a flowing team based on possession, interchange of players and quick movement. He has become first choice off the bench and will certainly have a role to play. Mario Balotelli: Manchester City (5 caps, 0 goals) Hard to believe he is still only 21 and also that he has made so few appearances for Italy but, much like Rossi and Cassano, Balotelli was excluded from selection under Lippi. Super Mario is now starting to shine under Roberto Mancini in the Premier League - as his recent goal-scoring prowess proves - and also made an impression on his Champions League debut for City last week, scoring once and creating another in a comfortable win. Prandelli said he planned to play the former Inter man between his two injury-hit stars and that would have been a lethal combination. Surely now Balotelli is going to have a major role to play? Pablo Osvaldo: Roma (1 cap, 0 goals) The Argentina-born striker is another of Prandelli's former players at Fiorentina and made his international debut in the final qualifier against Northern Ireland. He has yet to find the form he showed while in Spain with Espanyol but is steadily improving under the guidance of Luis Enrique at Roma. Sebastian Giovinco: Parma (6 caps, 0 goals) After struggling for playing time at Juventus, the diminutive striker has thrived since moving to Parma in a co-ownership deal. He has six goals and an assist this season already and made his first start last time out. Alessandro Matri: Juventus (2 caps, 1 goal) Truly an underrated player, the former Cagliari man has surprised many by continuing his goal-scoring prowess since moving to Turin. A Milan youth product, Matri has thrived in the famous black-and-white shirt, netting a hugely impressive 13 goals in 24 appearances. His international career has yet to really begin but his work-rate and off-the-ball ability - both of which are far superior to Pazzini's - are sure to make him a vital member of the squad. Alberto Gilardino: Fiorentina (47 caps 17 goals) A long-time Prandelli favourite, Gilardino is currently outside the squad but it would be a huge surprise if he did not return to the set-up between now and next summer. Still only 29, his return to form following a knee injury of his own could be timely for both player and acoach. Antonio Di Natale: Udinese (36 caps, 10 goals) Frankly, his omission from the latest squad is almost as astonishing as his goal-scoring form. With an unrivalled 77 goals in 92 league matches over the past three seasons, he has not been called up at all since the new coach took charge. Knocks about his ability at the highest level and, at 34, his age seemingly count against him, but Prandelli accepts that he will find it hard to ignore him: "If he maintains this form, I can't not take him into consideration for the Euros." An outside bet but one worthy of consideration.

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