Martin Rogers: Matured Mario Balotelli has become a force to be reckoned with

Once the enfant terrible of Italian soccer, Mario Balotelli has grown into himself and is ready to carry his nation to glory.
In the days leading up to the Euro 2012 final Sunday, many reasons will be given as to why Italy has defied odds and opinions to survive while 14 other nations have fallen.

Some will state that the squad united as one following the ongoing match-fixing scandal engulfing Italian soccer, much like it did when winning the 2006 World Cup in the midst of a widespread corruption crisis.

Others will cite defensive efficiency, a trait seen so often in Italian teams of the past yet thought to be missing this time around, at least until the inspired effort that shut down the feared Germany attacking machine for most of Thursday's 2-1 semifinal victory.

However, the most important reason is simple, yet somewhat unforeseen. It is because head coach Cesare Prandelli decided to put his unwavering faith in soccer's number one wild child, a figure so divisive that even Prandelli admits he has no idea what goes on inside his head.

The name is Mario Balotelli, and his two goals in the first half of this semifinal showdown set the tone for a significant upset. It was the latest chapter in the already incredible career of a player who is still only 21 years old.

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Most of the headlines involving Balotelli since his move to Manchester City of the English Premier League two years ago have been for all the wrong reasons. He missed eight games last season and was sent off twice, argued with his teammates, lost his temper and was even involved in an incident whereby a set of fireworks were accidentally let off in the bathroom of his mansion.

City coach Roberto Mancini despaired of what to do with him, and claimed he had no idea how to get through to Balotelli – who promptly responded by returning from suspension to set up the goal that handed City the EPL title in the final seconds of the campaign.

An extraordinary level of talent notwithstanding, Prandelli thought long and hard about leaving Balotelli off the Italy squad for Euro 2012, fearing his disruptive influence would outweigh his skill.

Now, with Italy ready to take on Spain on Sunday in the final, Prandelli is mightily relieved he decided to give Balotelli another chance.

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For not only did the big striker (whose future at City is far from certain) provide the match-winning performance against Germany, but he has also behaved like a model citizen in the team's camp.

"I have no real problem with him," Prandelli said. "It is trying to work out what goes on in the head of a 21-year-old man. In terms of his behavior, mentally and psychologically, he has changed radically with us.

"There are no problems with communication. I'm just curious to see what he is feeling, what sacrifices he is prepared to make to become a great footballer."

Balotelli spent just 68 minutes on the field before being substituted Thursday, but that was all he needed. With 20 minutes gone, a beautifully floated cross from the left by the outstanding Antonio Cassano, himself a "bad boy" of Italian soccer in his youth, found the head of the fast advancing Balotelli, who made no mistake from close range.


Just as Germany was trying to draw even before halftime, the Italians hit on the break again. This time Riccardo Montolivo provided the critical pass, sending Balotelli clear of the German defense and freeing him to smash the ball past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer with power and precision.

Germany, having grown comfortably and confidently into the role of tournament favorite, had no answer. Its second half endeavors were spirited but bore nothing except frustration until Mesut Ozil's consolation penalty deep into injury time.

It was too little, too late, and Italy marches on, carried on the young shoulders of its surprising and enigmatic talisman.

Martin Rogers is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports and the host of Goal Daily Podcast.