Answering to Italy's striker call: Mario Balotelli

The Milan man has been amongst the goals for his country and his brace against Malta may have Azzurri fans believing that they have found a gem of a striker...

By Srinivasan Mohan

He is arguably one among the list of maverick footballers in the world. Style, attitude and skill, he has all of this in surplus. Super Mario Balotelli has been the darling of the media for the content he provides for the newspapers to fill their pages with. However it is on the pitch that Mario has been ruthless. The 22-year old has been in sparkling form for both club and country after his career seemed to have hit a rough patch during his time with Manchester City this season.

The high profile move to AC Milan during the winter transfer window saw a resurgent Balotelli, one who began to enjoy playing for his club and was no more the sullen figure that resorted to theatrics to keep himself and the famous English press entertained. The presence of two disciplinarians in Massimiliano Allegri at AC Milan and Cesare Prandelli at the national level has ensured that Mario does not toe the line like he did on so many occasions under Roberto Mancini at Manchester.

Balotelli’s new found avatar has seen him score 10 goals in 8 games for both club and country. With the exception of the Milan Derby right after the Rossoneri’s famous win over Barcelona, the former Inter man has scored in every game in the famous Red and Black jersey of Milan.

If that wasn’t enough, three goals in the last two games for Italy has seen the striker being labelled as one of the best in the world. Such a tag will only bode well for both Balotelli and Italy who have struggled to find a decent Number 9 since the days when Luca Toni ran the show.

Striker Debut Year of Last Goal Games Goals
Luca Toni 2004 2008 47 16
Alberto Gilardino 2004 2010 47 17
Vincenzo Iaqauinta 2005 2010 40 6
Antonio Cassano 2003 2012 35 10
Antonio Di Natale 2002 2012 42 11
Fabio Quagliarella 2008 2010 25 6
Mario Balotelli 2010 2013 19 8

Italy's strikers have not lived up to their reputations at national level

Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta have all flattered to deceive and with coaches not willing to give Antonio Di Natale enough opportunities, Italy’s striking situation has been a well documented issue. It seemed that they would give anything to have the old striking pair of Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti leading the line for the Azzurri. However Mario Balotelli’s virtuoso shows for his country has given the Italians hope for the future. In a team that is renowned for its defensive stability over attacking prowess, Balotelli scores top marks in all aspects of the game sans discipline.Two world-class goals against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 were an audition of the bags of talent that this lad has.

Those who claimed that Balotelli was someone who just didn’t care whether he played a good game or not were made to eat humble pie during the final of Euro 2012. The striker was left in tears after a 4-0 demolition at the hands of Spain. It has to be remembered that this was an Italy team that had come leaps and bounds after the disaster of the 2010 World Cup. They were by far the only team in the tournament that had given Spain a run for their money.

The Euro 2012 final loss saw an emotional Balotelli

So impressive was their performance in the group stage encounter against Spain that the Spanish press even had the cheek to credit the Azzurri by saying ‘See you in the Final’ Italy. For such a talented team to lose so comprehensively in the final hurdle was too much to handle for the young Italian. A victory in the final would have given the Azzurri reason to smile as the country was yet again hit by match-fixing scandal before a major tournament.

Milan’s pursuit of the 22-year old was no secret. The highly publicized transfer from Manchester City during the January window saw the striker return to the club he has shown love for on more than one occasion. His arrival sparked scenes of frenzy across Milan and he opened his Rossoneri account in style with a well-taken volley against Udinese on his debut. Part of arguably one of the best strike forces in the continent alongside Stephan El-Sharraway and M’Biaye Niang, Balotelli has room to thrive and age on his side. The link-up play was there to be seen in the Serie A games. With El-Shaarawy playing on the left and and Niang on the right, Balotelli dropped deep, orchestrated play, won aerial duels, took set-pieces and of course taking penalties.

The former Manchester City man’s talent has been overshadowed by his off-field antics and also his terrible temperament during games. Four red cards in two years at Manchester City just goes to show how volatile he was. Roberto Mancini seemed to have a bottomless pit of patience when it came to his countryman.

Jose Mourinho however was not someone who was on the same terms. The Portuguese made public his displeasure towards the striker’s attitude on more than one occasion.

I remember one time we went to play Kazan in the Champions League. In that match I had all my strikers injured. No Milito, no Eto’o, I was really in trouble and Mario was the only one.

"Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute, so when I go to the dressing room at half-time I spend about 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking only to Mario.

"I said to him, ‘Mario, I cannot change you, I have no strikers on the bench, so don’t touch anybody and play only with the ball. If we lose the ball no reaction. If someone provokes you, no reaction, if the referee makes a mistake, no reaction.' The 46th minute, red card."

Add to this the numerous incidents of racist chants being directed at the striker from various sections of fans has seen him lose his cool on more than one occasion. Threatening to kill fans who threw bananas at him before Euro 2012 was just an indicator of just how much the striker had to face at such an early stage of his career.

But such incidents have only served to make the striker more thick-skinned towards such barbs and allowed him to focus on his game a lot more. Yes, he is still a hot-headed person, but he is also a talent that if nurtured well can truly be one of the modern day greats of the Beautiful Game and one that Italy can proudly boast of during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.


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