The striker had a torrid 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
The AC Milan striker is under more pressure to perform than any of his teammates this summer, and has had to deal with calls to install Ciro Immobile in the lineup at his expense.
The questions being asked are with justification. It was a tumultuous season for Balotelli at San Siro, and potentially his last. 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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Far from being the main man, as he is once again expected to be for Italy, he struggled, and clubs around Europe - including in England - started to weigh up the pros and cons of prising this engima away from his 'dream' club. It seemed the only pro would be that he would be cheap, given Milan's willingness to sever ties.
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.
Balotelli almost put his side ahead on the stroke of halftime, with a cool, nonchalant chip which had left Joe Hart, all at sea following a near Andrea Pirlo through ball, completely marooned. Phil Jagielka came to the rescue on that occasion but his partner Gary Cahill was nowhere to be seen when Balotelli drifted to the back stick to nod home Antonio Candreva's delightful cross.
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 center forward he has always threatened to be, laying the ball off to his teammates 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 teammates bubbling along nicely behind it, it could well be all about Mario in Rio de Janeiro on July 13.