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Petulant and profligate: Balotelli's starting place must be in jeapordy with Di Natale waiting in the wings

The Azzurri boss insists he has the utmost confidence in the sulky center forward but after reverting to type against Spain, the Udinese star looks a more reliable option up top

After recalling Mario Balotelli to the Italy squad ahead of Euro 2012, Cesare Prandelli disclosed to the press that the enigmatic striker had promised him that he would not see red during the tournament. “How confident are you that he’ll keep his word, on a scale of 0 to 100?” he was asked by one understandably sceptical reporter. “100,” came the almost instantaneous reply.

One imagines that Balotelli’s approval rating with his coach has dropped significantly in the wake of Saturday’s Group C opener against Italy.

The 21-year-old striker was a liability from almost the very first whistle in Gdansk. Within four minutes, he was looking frustrated with himself after overrunning the ball; by the half hour mark, he was beating the turf Sammy Kuffour-style after being harshly penalized for bundling over Gerard Pique in the Spain penalty area.

Disgusted with his inability to impose himself on the game in any positive way, Balotelli looked like a red card waiting to happen. That he wasn’t dismissed was primarily down to the fact that Prandelli decided to whip him off just before the hour mark. In truth, it was somewhat surprising that the Azzurri boss had waited that long.

Aside from giving away a succession of niggly fouls, one of which earned him a booking, Balotelli had contributed little else to Italy’s cause. One of the few bright spots in the friendly defeat by Russia had been the undeniable evidence that Balotelli appeared to be in the process of forming a keen understanding with strike partner Antonio Cassano.

However, it was a very different story in Gdansk. Balotelli did not look to be on the same wavelength as Cassano at all, and whereas the AC Milan man looked a constant threat while he was on the field, the Azzurri’s No.9 looked anything but.

BALO'S DISMAL DISPLAY

 
Played the game with his back to goal and looked to turn and shoot. He cut a frustrated figure throughout and picked up a needless booking for dissent. Showed no urgency when presented with a fantastic opportunity to score.
When his big moment arrived eight minutes into the second half, Balotelli fluffed his lines, inexplicably waiting for an eternity before attempting to pull the trigger as he bore down on Iker Casillas in the Spain goal. Admittedly, Balotelli had created the opening for himself by dispossessing Sergio Ramos wide on the right touchline but his lack of urgency was extremely puzzling.

The contrast with the way in which Di Natale clinically slotted Italy into the lead just two minutes after entering the fray could not have been more stark and Prandelli must now be giving serious thought to starting the prolific Udinese front man in Thursday’s crucial clash with Croatia.

Di Natale does not offer anything like the same presence, physicality and aerial prowess but as he so emphatically underlined, he is an intelligent runner and a wonderful finisher.

In addition, Prandelli clearly has no issue playing two little men up top given the diminutive Giuseppe Rossi was Cassano’s preferred partner during the qualification campaign. The Italy coach has also already proven that he is not afraid to axe Balotelli, having excluded him from the squad to face the USA in February because of the player’s “agitated” behavior.

The omission, coupled with the heavy criticism he received after his senseless red card for City in its defeat by Arsenal in April, appeared to have the desired impact as Balotelli showed signs of maturing towards the tail end of the season. However, on the evidence of Sunday evening, he still has plenty of growing up to do.

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