Why Mario Balotelli Is the Key to Italy's Euro 2012 Chances

Matthew CelentanoFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2012

KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 23:  In this handout image provided by UEFA, Mario Balotelli of Italy talks to the media during a UEFA EURO 2012 press conference at the Olympic Stadium on June 23, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images

Mario Balotelli: misunderstood genius or unstable madman?

The Italian forward is arguably the most controversial figure in world football, with his shenanigans off the pitch or moments of magic on the pitch always catching headlines.

Balotelli's Euro 2012 thus far has completely summed up his character, starting off with a frustrating performance against Spain where he wasted a goal-scoring chance handed to him on a silver platter, as well as punching the pitch after being fouled. But in his most recent match against Ireland, the Manchester City man scored one of the best goals of the tournament after coming on as a substitute to seal the Azzurri's spot in the quarterfinals. 

The head-scratching miss against Spain and the wondergoal against Ireland are the epitome of how double-sided Mario Balotelli is. He's Italy's X-factor, he has the potential to either win a match with a moment of magic or cost his side the win with a moment of madness.

For that reason, Balotelli must be started. His ability to change a match, for better or for worse, is something that few players have, and although it's a risk to play him, it's a risk that must be taken. The possibility of Balotelli producing something truly brilliant is something that Cesare Prandelli can't, and shouldn't, ignore.

Mario Balotelli is the key to Italy's chances of winning Euro 2012. He could be the scapegoat of the nation or he could be Italy's hero, and that will start with the Azzurri's quarterfinal against England. It's purely up to Balotelli to put his distractions and misbehavior aside for 90 minutes, to give his full focus and concentration on what's happening on the pitch, on the ball.

With his goal against Ireland, Balotelli showed how focused he can be when he wants to do so. He used his strength and his body to hold off the defender before sending a magnificent and acrobatic volley into the back of the net. Of course, the goal was followed by a controversial celebration that was thankfully suppressed by Leonardo Bonucci, but the important part was the game-changing goal.

Which Mario Balotelli will show up against England and for the rest of the tournament? Italy's chances for Euro 2012 depend on it.