The AC Milan striker had a torrid club season and had to face down calls for Ciro Immobile to take his place in the national team but proved to be decisive when needed most
By Sammy Lee at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus
When Mario Balotelli asked "Why always me?" back in 2011, the answer was because he always made himself the story, via fireworks or bust-ups. Now, in 2014, it is because he is Italy's best hope of success at the World Cup.
The AC Milan striker is under more pressure to perform than any of his team-mates this summer and has had to deal with calls to install Ciro Immobile in the line-up at his expense.
The questions being asked are with justification. It was a tumultuous season for Balotelli at San Siro and potentially his last there. He picked up almost as many cards as goals for the Rossoneri - 14 yellows, one red and 18 goals - and often looked dismayed at what was going on around him.
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Take into account Immobile's success - he was Serie A's top scorer with 22 goals - the calls for the Torino man to lead the line for his country were both inevitable and understandable.
But it was Balotelli who was there in Manaus on Saturday, dropping deep to link up with a promising midfield trio, and there at the back post five minutes into the second half to head home the decisive goal, which gives the Azzurri an excellent chance of advancing from Group D as winners.
His performance showed the importance of letting your main man get on with his job. Had Cesare Prandelli felt the need to play Immobile, it is highly unlikely that he would have moved Balo out wide, as Roy Hodgson has opted to deploy Wayne Rooney.
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Balotelli struggled for service in the opening exchanges, understandably failing to control wayward passes sent in his general direction but, when given a fighting chance, he proved the big, strong centre forward that he has always threatened to be, laying the ball off to his team-mates with head or chest.
Immobile did replace Balotelli as a 73rd-minute substitute. His cameo was not particularly impressive, though, spurning one good opportunity on the break which could have put the game to bed.
As on Saturday, Balotelli will be there again in Recife to spearhead his nation's hopes of beating Costa Rica, who earlier boosted their own chances of progression with victory over Uruguay. With his team-mates bubbling along nicely behind it, it could well be all about Mario in Rio de Janeiro on July 13.