By Tom Kington
When AS Roma took on Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League on 3 November there were two key absences at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.
The first was 70,000 Roma fans, missing as the game was played behind closed doors due to disciplinary action. The second was Antonio Cassano, Roma idol, Italy's stand-out striker in Portugal this summer at the age of 22, and a player often hailed as the best of his generation.
Citing 'disputes with the manager' for his absence was putting it mildly. The tantrum-prone player was out of the side and had been training alone after rowing with coach Luigi Del Neri and club management over everything from substitutions to training techniques.
After being demoted to the substitutes bench following a row with coach Rudi Völler, Cassano responded furiously when Völler's replacement, Del Neri, substituted him in a Serie A game against Cagliari Calcio four days before the visit of Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
Cassano was left out of the lineup for the crucial Matchday 4 encounter, and subsequently failed to appear at a reconciliation meeting the following weekend. "
We tried to establish dialogue with this talented player, but were unable to do so and we do not understand why," said Rossella Sensi, daughter of chairman Franco Sensi.
'The Little Jewel', who learnt his football in the poor back streets of Bari in the southern heel of Italy, also appeared to have lost the support of his fellow players. Following Del Neri's lead, they refused to discuss Cassano after the Leverkusen game.
Arriving from AS Bari three years ago for €28.5m following Roma's championship win in 2001, Cassano combined to form a successful two-man attack with captain Francesco Totti, scoring 14 goals last season.
He then shone for a disappointing Italy side at the UEFA European Championship this summer, scoring the winner in the victory over Bulgaria before summing up the heartbreak of Italians when he ran to the bench to celebrate, only to learn that Denmark's 2-2 last minute draw with Sweden was enough to put the Italians out.
However, as far as coaches are concerned, Cassano's sublime skills and striking power come at a price. His passing and running with the ball need work and he constantly seems to be at odds with his coaches, from Fabio Capello to Völler and now Del Neri.
A hard taskmaster, Del Neri has shown little patience for Cassano's petulance, and the Roma fans have also started to cool towards the 22-year-old, jeering him off the pitch for the first time after he was substituted against FC Internazionale Milano. With Roma struggling in the bottom five in Serie A, the coach has not been prepared to tolerate dissent - something which the club's senior players - 'senators' - have found hard to handle.
Back on side
Italian international defender Christian Panucci has also found himself out in the cold this season. He was on the bench for the weekend's 1-0 defeat at Reggina Calcio. Cassano, however, returned to the pitch, indicating that - for the time being at least - he and Del Neri have settled their differences.
Last Friday the Italian press revealed that Cassano had come to heel and apologised to his coach. The reconciliation may have come too late to save Roma's European campaign, but should Del Neri manage to harness the striker's undisputed talents, he could yet salvage something from what has been a miserable season so far for Roma.
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