Mario Balotelli has always been a little different. He's one of the most dynamic young strikers in the sport, but sometimes, it seems like his mind isn't always on football. That seems like it has finally started to change at Euro 2012.
The 21-year-old Manchester City sensation has scored three goals in the tournament, including two in Italy's surprising upset victory over Germany in the semifinals. More often than not, he's been the most dangerous player on the pitch.
He's always been the type of player who can put the team on his back and carry them to victory. Those mental lapses have held him back from becoming one of the world's premier players, however.
Balotelli has kept himself in check during Italy's run, though, showing at least some progress. They were no blatant red cards, although his yellow on Thursday could have been avoided, and no major mistakes to cost his team the game.
For most players, that's just a normal stretch of games. For Balotelli, it shows that something might finally be clicking in his head about limiting those avoidable mistakes for the betterment of his team.
That would surely make life a whole lot easier on his managers, whether it be Roberto Mancini at the club level or Italian boss Cesare Prandelli.
They have always been forced to choose between his talent and his temperament and usually sided with the talent for better or worse.
If he can keep him head on straight, his already tremendous potential will increase even more. That's really the only thing which has held him back for the first portion of his career.
As for now, Prandelli just wants him to survive one more game without having any setbacks. Balotelli was uncharacteristically calm, cool and collected immediately after the final whistle sounded, and they showed him on the sidelines. That's a good sign.
Italy's only chance of knocking off Spain will be continued strong play from the back line and offensive pressure from Balotelli. That's been the formula for success to this point, and there's no reason to change it now, particularly with "Super Mario" under control.
It's impossible to know what's going through his head, but hopefully, Balotelli realizes Sunday's match will be the biggest one of his career so far. He has a chance to change some perceptions with a smart, effective performance.
Now, everyone just has to sit back and see if he's really starting to turn over a new leaf or if it was just a short-term bout of change.
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