MODENA, Italy (AP) – A year ago, American-born forward Giuseppe Rossi was dealt one of the biggest disappointments of his career when he was cut from Marcello Lippi's Italy World Cup squad.
What a difference a year makes.
Under new coach Cesare Prandelli, Rossi has become the focal point of Italy's attack. An extraordinary season at Spanish club Villarreal has fed speculation that he could soon join European champion Barcelona.
Rossi scored once, hit the post and set up several more chances in Italy's 3-0 win over Estonia in a European Championship qualifier Friday.
''Rossi is now the player that every coach would like to have,'' Prandelli said Saturday. ''And like all great players he never feels like he's reached the top.''
Prandelli has known Rossi for more than a decade, ever since the budding striker joined Parma's youth system at age 12 after moving with his father from Teaneck, N.J. Prandelli coached Parma's Serie A squad.
Rossi has spent most of his senior club career outside Italy, first with Manchester United, then Newcastle United briefly and another short spell with Parma before establishing himself at Villarreal over the past four seasons.
''He's matured in Spain because that's the ideal league for him with movement and ball possession,'' Prandelli said. ''We in Italy these last few years have been a little too reliant on the tactical aspects of the game.''
At 5-feet-8 with excellent speed, vision and control, Rossi fits the model of the modern strikers that have fared so well at Barcelona, led by Argentina standout Lionel Messi - the two-time FIFA player of the year.
Born in New Jersey to Italian parents, Rossi has dual citizenship. He always dreamed of playing for Italy, turning down offers from the United States squad early in his career.
He may have regretted his choice of soccer country when he sat at home and watched on TV last year's World Cup in South Africa. But getting cut from the squad clearly motivated him.
Rossi scored 32 goals in all competitions for Villarreal this season: 18 in the Spanish Liga, 11 in the Europa League - helping the club reach the semifinals - and three in the Copa del Rey.
Rossi has also scored three goals in his last four matches with Italy, giving him a total of 35 goals in 62 matches for club and country since Lippi let him know he wasn't on the World Cup squad.
''That's a good average, but it's always a result of the squads that I play for,'' said Rossi, who is developing excellent chemistry with fellow Italy forward Antonio Cassano.
After Rossi set up several chances for Cassano against Estonia, Cassano provided the pass for Rossi's goal.
''Playing with Antonio is a treat. He's a great player and he provided me with a great ball for the first goal,'' Rossi said. ''That's the way I like to play football - keeping the ball on the ground with short passes.''
While Rossi and Cassano complement each other perfectly on the pitch, they appear far different off the field. Rossi is introverted and well-mannered, while Cassano is the team clown and known for losing his cool.
Nicknamed ''Joe Cool'' or the ''Americano'' by Italian media, Rossi speaks English, Italian and Spanish. He may soon learn Catalan if he joins Barcelona.
''I'm not thinking about the market right now, I'm just thinking about Italy,'' Rossi said. ''There's time for that.''