The AC Milan forward is coming off the back of a turbulent domestic campaign, in complete contrast to the 2013-14 Serie A season's capocannoniere.
It has been a week of proposals within the Italy camp. On Monday, Mario Balotelli got down on one knee and asked for his girlfriend Fanny Neguesha’s hand in marriage. “She said yes,” the 23-year-old enthused. “The most important yes in my life.” However, Balotelli has also, unintentionally, presented Italy coach Cesare Prandelli with a decision to make. And a far trickier one than Neguesha was faced with.
Balotelli’s listless performance as a substitute in last weekend’s final World Cup warm-up against Brazilian Serie A side Fluminense contrasted so starkly with the man he had replaced, hat-trick hero Ciro Immobile, that the question is now being asked as to whether the latter should lead the line against England in Manaus on Saturday evening.PHOTOS: Opening ceremony | Brazil protests | Soccer fanatics | Fan tattoos
It seems ludicrous to suggest dropping a player who left an indelible mark on Euro 2012 with a stunning semifinal double against Germany, the only player who could possibly rival Cristiano Ronaldo as the perfect combination of technique and physique. However, Balotelli’s most vital statistics are worrying - and, crucially, do not stand up well against those of Immobile.
‘Super Mario’ netted 14 times in 30 Serie A appearances for AC Milan last season. Immobile hit 22 goals in 33 games for Torino, walking away with the Capocannoniere title in the process. One could argue that those figures are somewhat distorted by the fact that Immobile played three more games than his striking rival, but that would be ignoring the fact that Balotelli actually took 51 more strikes on goal over the course of the campaign. To put it simply: Immobile scored more goals from far fewer opportunities. Given chances are likely to be at a premium against a defensively-minded, compact England side, surely Immobile represents the better option up front?
Balotelli may seem more equipped to deal with the expected physicality of England’s center backs but Immobile is just as imposing a presence up front. After Borussia Dortmund had confirmed the signing of the latter from Torino last month, coach Jurgen Klopp described the 24-year-old as “a powerhouse”. Even more significantly, the BVB boss labelled the club’s new signing as “a real warrior”. Immobile gives 100 percent in each and every game. Can the same really be said of Balotelli?
Indeed, there is a feeling that only one of the two is fully aware of just how important this World Cup is for their respective careers.
As former Azzurri ace Toto Schillaci told Gazzetta dello Sport: “Immobile has had a great season and he scored a lot. He’s in great form and he has the same enthusiasm I had in Italia 90 ... He has great belief in himself and he feels that this can be his moment.
“Balotelli is a great talent, but he must understand that this World Cup is a great opportunity for him and, consequently, he cannot make mistakes, neither on the field, nor off it.”
Balotelli is the superior player. He has what it takes to become one of the finest forwards of his generation. Former Inter and Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini said it better than anyone: “If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything.”
Mancini said that two years ago, though, and yet here we are still talking about Balotelli’s potential and his temperament.
Just 10 months ago he was punching a wall in frustration after being dismissed during Italy's World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic. In September of last year he talked himself into a second yellow card after full time in Milan's home defeat by Napoli, ruling himself out of three games when the struggling Rossoneri needed him most. The fact of the matter is that Balotelli remains a liability, a volatile character frustratingly susceptible to provocation. And England's players will hardly have forgotten this in the 18 months that have passed since he swapped the Etihad Stadium for San Siro.
Immobile reportedly made a proposal of his own this week, asking Prandelli to play him alongside Balotelli up front. It seems unlikely to be accepted. “Anything is possible,” Prandelli mused, “but two central strikers with the quality players we have in midfield would be pushing it.”
Consequently, it will be a straight choice between Balotelli and Immobile on Saturday and, in truth, it would be a surprise if Prandelli opts for the less experienced man. Strikers are judged by their goals record, though, so Balotelli must know that, having failed to score for Italy since October, he is a man on borrowed time.
Indeed, he was once asked why he never greeted his goals with any discernible expression of joy. “When I score, I don’t celebrate because I’m only doing my job,” Balotelli explained. “When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?”
Fair enough. But what happens, by that rationale, when the postman stops delivering? Surely it is only a matter of time before he is replaced?