All the attention is on Cassano

History of falling out with authority figures leaves question marks over AC Milan striker's maturity.

AC Milan's Antonio Cassano, center, celebrates with teammates Gennaro Gattuso, left, and Robinho, of Brazil, during a Serie A soccer match between Cagliari and AC Milan, in Cagliari, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011. AC Milan won 1-0. (AP Photo/Daniela Santoni) *** Local Caption ***  CAG114_Italy_Soccer_Serie_A.jpg
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When Silvio Berlusconi, the president of AC Milan and prime minister of Italy, addressed the players of his squad last Tuesday in Rome, he paid special attention to the newcomer, Antonio Cassano.

"You," he told Cassano, "are the Italian footballer with the greatest natural talent of all."

None of Cassano's compatriots in the Milan ranks took great offence at that. Cassano's exceptional gifts have never been in dispute; the doubts about the 28-year-old striker have always surrounded his application of that talent.

As the rossoneri, Serie A's league leaders, lined up to hear Berlusconi play the motivator and statesman - "a strong Milan is good for Italy," he proclaimed - Cassano still looked like an outsider.

Most of the players stood upright, like soldiers being inspected by a general, or at least like schoolboys listening to their headmaster. Cassano's pose was significantly different. He leaned gently against a pillar, just a bit less ceremonial than the others. It was easy to spot the potential class rebel.

It had been rebellion that led Cassano to Milan, whom he formally joined at the opening of this month's transfer window. He fell out with the Sampdoria president, Riccardo Garrone, last October and from then on a departure from that club - the third, after Bari and Roma, of his Serie A career - became inevitable.

Samp had in turn recruited Cassano in 2007 when Real Madrid no longer wanted a player who had clashed there with the coach Fabio Capello. Famously, Cassano was caught on camera doing a mischievous impersonation of Capello to amuse his teammates.

A word has been coined for these acts of indiscipline that have punctuated his career. They are called "cassanate", a kind of tomfoolery named after Cassano.

It is no exaggeration to say that Italian football is in suspense about whether the Cassano era at Milan will be characterised by cassanate or by the late flowering of an individual around whom the national team has once again pinned heavy hopes.

Cassano's competitive debut for his new club, on Thursday away at Cagliari, put the player at centre stage, even when he was on the substitutes' bench at the start.

Television viewers were repeatedly dragged from events on the field to see what Cassano might be doing. The answer? Smiling from time to time; looking concerned as a Milan deprived of Zlatan Ibrahimovic through suspension, and a number of senior players through injury, struggled to impose themselves.

Cassano was given his chance to make a difference 16 minutes from time, stripping off his tracksuit to reveal his No 99 jersey. Eleven minutes later, he had set up the game's only goal.

Receiving the ball from Robinho, an old comrade from Real Madrid, he then found Rodney Strasser, another replacement, and the young Sierra Leone striker, in a position that looked offside, scored his first senior goal for Milan.

Milan's coach, Massimiliano Allegri, praised Cassano's contribution, but stressed that he will be easing, not rushing, the player into his plans.

"This Milan is about everybody, not just Ibrahimovic, not just Cassano. He's not yet in perfect shape because he has been a long time without first-team football, and we have a heavy schedule of fixtures ahead, with Champions League coming up," Allegri said.

The win confirmed Milan as winter champions.

Even if they lose at San Siro tomorrow against Udinese they will lead Serie A at the halfway stage of the season, given they hold a five-point advantage over second-placed Lazio.

Ibrahimovic, the top scorer, should return against Udinese; Alexandre Pato did come back, against Cagliari, from a long lay-off; and Robinho showed on Thursday that his unfortunate injury during last week's friendly in Dubai (he collided with a television camera) is less grave than initially feared. Thus, Cassano may again have to be content with a place on the bench. Allegri will hope that does not bore him. It is when Cassano seeks distractions that the cassanate occur.