By Paolo Camedda
Italy legend Alessandro Altobelli is in no doubt that Mario Balotelli is capable of reaching the same level of excellence as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and believes the forward could take the first step on that particular journey in Sunday's Euro 2012 showdown with Spain.
Balotelli has thus far in his fledgling career frustrated as often as he has impressed, but he emphatically underlined his world-class potential with a terrific double in the Azzurri's 2-1 win over Germany in Warsaw on Thursday night.
The striker's heroics came as no surprise to Altobelli, who has long been convinced of the player's ability to become a star.
"I have known Balotelli since he was a boy playing with the Lumezzane youth team. He's a player that I've always rated," the former Inter forward told Goal.com.
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"He is extraordinary and if he matures a little, he has the quality to become one of the best players in the world. Spain know that well.
"Everyone, when they're speaking about Balotelli, say that he could be a problem in the dressing room. Even on the eve of this European Championship, there were those who supported this theory.
"It seems to me instead that the only problems Balotelli has created have been for opposition defences.
"When I say that he has the quality to be one of the best players in the world it is because I think he can become as strong as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo."
Altobelli is also confident Balotelli will get his hands on the European Championship trophy in Kiev, admitting that he has not been unduly impressed by the Nazionale's opponents.
"Having seen Italy and, in particular, this Spain side in action, I firmly believe in Italy," he explained. "I'll put a euro on an Azzurri victory in the final!
"I think that Italy and Spain each have a 50 percent chance of winning but the Azzurri have grown since the start of the tournament, while La Roja have slipped a little."
Italy's meeting with Spain is scheduled to kick off at 20:45CET in the Ukrainian capital.