By Carlo Garganese at Craven Cottage
When Giuseppe Rossi broke down in Villarreal training in April 2012 and tore the same anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that he had ruptured the previous October against Real Madrid, many feared that we had seen the end of the forward's top-class career.
But after three operations, a mid-recovery transfer to Fiorentina and almost 18 months out of the game, Rossi has now completed the most incredible of comebacks.
Already top scorer of Serie A with 11 goals for a Viola side who - along with Barcelona and Arsenal - play arguably the purest football in Europe, Rossi returned to the international fore on Tuesday night by scoring 13 minutes into his first Italy start in over two years.
"I always knew I would come back from my injury," Rossi told Goal after the Azzurri's 2-2 draw with Nigeria at Craven Cottage.
"There were never any doubts in my mind. I put in a lot of hard work and showed a lot of determination. Thank God I am here.
"It was nice to receive the affection from my team-mates today."
|MATCH FACTS | Italy 2-2 Nigeria|
Football is often dominated by negative headlines – such as diving, racism and violence – and Rossi's tale is a rare feel-good story. When the ex-Manchester United man was substituted on 53 minutes, he received a standing ovation from the raucous crowd at Craven Cottage - mostly filled by England-based Azzurri fans.
Prior to that he had terrorised the Nigeria backline; buzzing around the edge of the box, dropping in between the lines, playing one-twos and looking dangerous and dynamic every time he received the ball. Rossi sprung up an immediate understanding with forward colleague Mario Balotelli and the two combined superbly for the former to put Italy ahead, delicately dinking the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Austin Ejide.
"We get on well together and we did well tonight," the New Jersey-born striker added.
"Mario gave me a great assist for my goal and played very well, so I'm happy for him."
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has utilised eight different starting formations this year, and prior to the Nigeria clash had struggled to find a strike-pairing capable of hitting it off – despite a wealth of other attacking options, ranging from Pablo Osvaldo to Lorenzo Insigne, Stephan El Shaarawy to Alessio Cerci.
In Rossi and Balotelli, it seems Prandelli may have potentially found his winning combination ahead of next summer's World Cup. The pair certainly compliment each other – Rossi's trickery and intricacy backed up by Balotelli's power and bravery. Both are just as comfortable as a first striker as they are as a second – and this ability to change skins is a nightmare for any defenders, as Nigeria's backline will attest.
While Prandelli will be once again concerned by the leakiness of his defence, which has now conceded 21 goals in 12 games since the start of the Confederations Cup in June, he will be absolutely delighted to have rediscovered Rossi.
In all competitions, the attacker now has 13 goals already this season. At this rate, he will finish the campaign with more than 40 strikes to his name. In this form, Rossi could be one of the stars of the World Cup – and match the heroics of his namesake Paolo, who victoriously top-scored at the 1982 tournament after almost two years out of the game.