By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
People often talk about so-called ‘inevitabilities’ in football, and there was a lot of that at San Siro on Sunday when AC Milan hosted Udinese. When Giampaolo Pazzini pulled up injured in the warm-up, it was seen as ‘inevitable’ that Mario Balotelli would get to start. That he put his side ahead midway through the first half was just as inevitable.
But really, they were simply eventualities that so many fans and headline writers had wished for beforehand coming to fruition. Such was the occasion, it was easy to get whipped up in ‘Mario fever’ and spray superlatives around every time the Italy striker touched the ball. The events of the 94th minute, though, resembled what is quickly becoming one of football’s true inevitabilities. Mario Balotelli scored from the penalty spot. Again.
It was the 17th time in his professional career that the former Inter and Manchester City star had stepped up to the 12-yard mark. And it was the 17th time he had scored in such a situation. First minute or last, big game or small, game on the line or dead and buried, Mario just does not miss.
And the striker himself suggests that it is no accident that he is constantly successful from the spot. He has explained in the past how his superior ability to play mind games is key in his record in one-on-one situations.
“It’s just like a mind game between me and the goalkeeper,” he told the Daily Mirror. “Me, I know how to control my mind. When the keeper moves before me, it means that in this mind game he has lost.”
|SUPER MARIO'S SPOT-KICK STATS
Borussia Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller was one such shot-stopper in a now memorable moment during Balotelli’s days at Manchester City. In a Champions League group game in October 2012 with City trailing 1-0 at the Etihad, Weidenfeller tried to psyche out the striker by speaking in his ear as he prepared to take a last-minute penalty.
Balotelli’s response was to slide home the spot-kick and then motion to the German to quit the chatter (pictured right). Weidenfeller later admitted: “I whispered in his ear, but he is a smart dog who couldn't be influenced by me,” conceded the Dortmund keeper.
'Super' Mario’s fantastic record suggests that his approach to winning the one-on-one in the head first and foremost has some credence. But what does Dr. Rhonda Cohen, Sport & Exercise Psychologist at Middlesex University, make of the importance Balotelli places on psychology in the taking of penalties?
“We call the action - taking or waiting for the penalty shot - ‘A’, and the outcome or consequence ‘C’,” she explains. “But what are identified as ‘B’ are the thoughts, beliefs and feelings which occur between the action and the consequence. So what the penalty taker or goalkeeper is thinking is vitally important. Thoughts, beliefs and feelings can lead to distraction or even tension which can throw off a movement.
“Players who are psychologically prepared have a greater chance of succeeding in a penalty situation," Dr. Cohen continues. "Coaches know this and even get players to practice in front of crowds so they can experience the pressure. However, the pressure is so intense that it is difficult even for the most experienced players to be absolutely consistent in these situations.
“If the strategy of controlling his mind by watching the movement of the keeper works for Balotelli, then it is a real and useful psychological tool for him. Each player needs to have their own strategies.”
Such is Balotelli’s belief in his ability from 12 yards, he once famously fought for the right to take a penalty against hometown club Palermo with Inter’s then first-choice taker Samuel Eto’o before being led away by skipper Javier Zanetti. There is seemingly no end to the €23 million man's belief, and that is backed up by England keeper Joe Hart, who claims he kept out only one Balotelli penalty in training over the two-and-a-half year period in which they were City team-mates.
Former penalty king Matthew Le Tissier, who scored 47 of 48 penalties in the top flight for Southampton, puts his record down to nothing more than belief coupled with a sheer desire to get on the scoresheet. “I believed that when I stepped up to take them, I was going to score. It was an easy chance for a goal,” Le Tissier told the BBC. “Being a goalscorer and loving hitting the back of the net, I just didn't want to waste that opportunity.”
But if Italy are awarded a penalty on Wednesday night against Netherlands, who just so happen to have a notoriously poor spot-kick record in major tournaments, don’t be surprised to see Balotelli win the mind games and send the goalkeeper the wrong way yet again. Because if, as Dr. Cohen suggests, ‘A’ stands for the action and ‘C’ for the consequence, then ‘B’ is Balotelli territory.
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