The swap deal agreed to between crosstown rivals Inter and AC Milan at the end of the summer transfer window that saw Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini trade places was met with puzzlement from many Italian media outlets.
Many wondered why Milan would take on Pazzini, who had only scored five league goals in 33 games a year ago. Others wondered what kind of role Cassano would play in Andrea Stramaccioni's system and what effect he might have on the locker room.
Cassano had just come off a successful campaign with Italy at Euro 2012, where he scored one goal and assisted on another as the Azzurri unexpectedly drove all the way to a runner-up finish. The performance was remarkable in that he was coming back from a November heart procedure. After having led the team in scoring in qualification at the Euros, Cassano's presence helped solidify a young back line.
His play at the beginning of the season was superb, and Inter's gamble looked like it was going to pay off handsomely. Cassano was as clinical as ever in the month of September, scoring four times in five league games. His form helped ignite Inter's hop start, which found them all the way up to second and saw them beating Juventus to end the bianconeri's 49-match unbeaten run.
But Cassano's form took a turn for the doldrums around the winter break, and Inter's fortunes have gone with it.
The early part of Cassano's season saw him at his absolute best. Stramaccioni allowed him to rove in the attacking third, much the way Cesare Prandelli did in Poland and Ukraine. Cassano responded by scoring those four goals and creating a plethora of scoring chances with his teammates. Inter soared.
But soon into the season Stramaccioni began tinkering with tactics. He briefly tried a 3-4-3 formation that put Cassano on the wing with Diego Milito in the center. Other formational changes knocked Cassano and the rest of the team off kilter and off rythem.
The best example of what a good Cassano means to the team is the recently completed Europa League Round of 16 tie with Tottenham Hotspur.
In the first leg, Cassano was abjectly horrible. He failed to so much as get a shot off, let alone score, and only completed 63 percent of his passes. Defensively his contribution only amounted to a single interception in the 90 minutes of game time.
Contrast that with Cassano's manhandling of Spurs in the second leg. He scored Inter's first goal, assisted on another, made seven key passes and found the target with four or five shots. It was a man-of-the-match performance that was nearly flawless, and brought Inter to the cusp of an epic comeback after coming to the San Siro needing to overcome a 3-0 deficit.
It's obvious what kind of team Inter is with an in-form Cassano in their lineup. Without Diego Milito for the rest of the season due to injury, Inter needs Cassano more than ever. With only him and Rodrigo Palacio there to lead the front line, if Inter are looking for Champions League play (they're two points out of the vital third spot in the league with 10 games to go), it is imperative that they get the on-form Cassano of the beginning of the year and Thursday's Tottenham game.
Otherwise, the Europa League may again very well be their next destination a year from now.
With their top scorer gone, Inter needs the production that Good Cassano can bring in order to stay alive in the hunt for the Champions League. Stretched so thin, only the quality he showed at the Euros will keep them in the hunt.