It may have been 18 years since they seized their sole Scudetto, but Sampdoria remember the euphoria well as they target glory again this season. 'Goal twins' Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini fired the Genoa club to the Serie A title in 1991, hitting 258 goals overall during their spells at the club, and a new prolific pair of forward have now stepped forward.
Former enfant terrible of the Italian game, Antonio Cassano, is forming an excellent partnership with eternal hope Giampaolo Pazzini, and both men are now knocking on the door of the Italy squad with less than a year to go before the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
"When I watch him, he reminds me of the player I knew at Roma: a great talent and a great player," said England coach Fabio Capello of Cassano recently. "But I don't know what he gets up to outside the dressing room. He can be both inspired and unpredictable. Let's hope that from now on he'll be more inspired than unpredictable and that Marcello Lippi can call him up to the national side."
If Sampdoria are riding high in the Serie A standings once again, they also owe much of that to coach Luigi del Neri, their 59-year-old former player, who has found the words and tactics to give renewed energy to two players written off far too early into their careers. "Cassano has changed and matured," Del Neri remarked. "He makes himself more available and is helping his team-mates grow up. At Roma, he was a young boy in a big town. He'll get into the national team eventually."
"My play and my talent saved me from an awful life," added the Bari native, who at 27 believes he is now "at the peak of my career". Since arriving at Sampdoria, the player previously known as more of a solo artist has learned to put his gifts at the service of the team. When his side are in trouble, he makes a concerted effort not to lose possession and never misses a chance to encourage his colleagues.
As for his fellow marksman Pazzini, the 25-year-old's career has followed a more traditional route. The talented forward was quickly identified as a future great, only to find his path blocked by Luca Toni, Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino at Fiorentina. Despite being held back, though, he still managed to be voted Best Young Player in Serie A in 2006, before firing a sensational hat-trick for the Italy U-21 team against England at Wembley - one that included the first goal at the rebuilt stadium after just 29 seconds.
Increasingly used to starting Viola games on the bench, Pazzini nonetheless began to lose his sharpness. In fact, it represented something of a risk when Sampdoria signed him up for €9 in January, his new employers calculating that he would quickly find his feet alongside Cassano. The undisputed first-team regular responded by hitting 11 goals in the second half of the league season, and another four in the Coppa Italia.
That return to form has not gone unnoticed and Pazzini has been selected three times by Lippi, while adding another four strikes in his club's first seven Serie A outings this term. Continuing in the same vein would give him an excellent chance of a seat on the plane to South Africa should Gli Azzurri seal qualification, although competition is destined to be stiff with Filippo Inzaghi, Toni, Antonio Di Natale and Giuseppe Rossi also hopeful of making the trip.
For Cassano, on the other hand, a return to the national side remains a complicated issue. "I've got nothing against him," answered Lippi recently when asked why he has not sent out a call to the Sampdoria No99. "He's a professional and a nice guy. I respect public opinion and opinion polls that want him playing for the Azzurri. But I don't have to explain my decisions."
Cassano himself refuses to speak out on the subject, even if he believes he can force Lippi to change his mind in the weeks and months to come. Should he fail, on the other hand, he has decided to make the most of having next summer off by marrying his girlfriend, Carolina Marcialis - further proof, perhaps, that the former bad boy has grown up.