Mario Balotelli plays the game on the margins, teetering at times between sheer brilliance and utter disaster. Balotelli was brilliant in the semifinal win over Germany. For Italy to beat Spain in the Euro 2012 final, Balotelli will need to be more brilliant than ever.
It may be difficult for the enigmatic striker to perform better than he did against Germany, displaying a level of pace, strength and sheer ferocity the German defense was unable to contain.
And yet, after scoring his second goal in the 36th minute, Balotelli teetered on the edge of disaster, stripping off his shirt and flexing his muscles, an understated celebration by his standards, earning a totally unnecessary yellow card. In the midst of Italian euphoria came the realization that the Azzurri had to play close to an hour with Balotelli on a caution, just one outburst away from being sent off, leaving Italy a man down.
Thankfully for Italy, Balotelli managed the rest of the match without imploding, subbed out in the 70th minute to assure a full squad for Italy in the final against Spain.
It is unfair to suggest Italy would have no chance against Spain without Balotelli in the lineup, but his presence will certainly help. The striker has half of Italy's goals this tournament, tied for the tournament lead with three goals—the only player with three tallies remaining in the tournament—and in line for the golden boot with one more goal in the final. Let's not forget Balotelli also scored the first goal of the penalty shootout win over England in the quarterfinals.
Through five matches, he is second in the tournament in shots with 23 and has yet to be called offside, a key statistic given his ability to stay onside led to Italy's decisive second goal over Germany in the semifinals.
By all measures, Balotelli has been oddly well-behaved on the pitch for Italy this tournament (and notably well-mannered off it). He did get a yellow card in the first match against Spain and does have the second-most fouls in the tournament (14), which is certainly not great for a striker. But other than being a tad over-aggressive, Balotelli has been leaning to the side of brilliance far more than disaster the last five games.
Now, before we completely call the guy a model citizen, there is one fascinating incident to recall from the finale of the group stage. After scoring a wonderful goal against Ireland on a half bicycle, Balotelli turned to yell at his bench—presumably for not starting him in the match—before teammate Leonardo Bonucci had to cover his mouth while embracing him in celebration.
The 21-year-old sure is volatile.
That volatility is what creates the alluring balance between talent and catastrophe. Without that fire, Balotelli wouldn't be the player he is on the field. On an Italian team built on tactical dominance and control, Balotelli's lack of control proved to be an untenable force against Germany. Balotelli's volatility is maybe—just maybe—the best weapon to employ against Spain.
Remember, Spain managed to bottle up Balotelli in the first meeting. After a run of relative ineffectiveness against the Spanish defense—and sitting on an earlier yellow card—the striker was subbed out in the 57th minute for Antonio Di Natale, who went on to score Italy's lone goal of the match. Balotelli managed only one shot against Spain on 33 touches, making one successful dribbling run with the ball and drawing just one foul, while committing four of his own.
Certainly Balotelli needs to be better against Spain if Italy stands a chance to win. The concern for the Azzurri is that Spain offers little opportunity for opponents to possess the ball, limiting the number of touches, and potential chances, Balotelli may get up top.
The Spanish game plan will surely be to frustrate Italy with ball control and short passing, drawing foul after foul. Spain leads the Euros in getting fouled, something Italy—and specifically Balotelli when he puts pressure on the fullbacks and comes back to help on defense—will have to monitor.
Spain has a tendency to lull teams to sleep in hopes of forcing a mistake or creating so much frustration the defense is left with no other option but to over-commit, leading to mistakes and disorganization.
To put it mildly, Spain may be the worst possible matchup for Balotelli's fiery nature.
While the rest of the Italian side prides itself on disciplined defense—leading the tournament in interceptions per game and sixth in tackles per game—and the notion of Andrea Pirlo having a passing competition with Xavi and Andres Iniesta is wonderfully alluring, the concern for Italy could be up front.
I think he is a great player. He showed that yesterday
He had two fantastic moments and scored two great goals. One a true center-forward's header and the other one from a real cracking shot from outside the area in a European Championship semi-final against a top team like Germany.
This tells you everything. I really liked the way he played and he will be, of course, a threat as well as [Antonio] Cassano or any other forward who plays with Italy.
They are always very dangerous, but we have the players to stop them. We have defended well. We have to neutralise their attack and midfield where [Andrea] Pirlo is the player, otherwise he will take control of the match.
While Balotelli is the wild card—quite literally—Pirlo is the bigger concern for Spain. Regardless of how it happens, if Italy can score early, Spain will be forced to play more aggressively, opening up the defense for counter-attacks.
This is how Italy was able to beat Germany, as one early ball in the back of the net changed the entire makeup of that match and opened up space for Balotelli to outrun the defense and net his second goal of the semifinals, putting Italy in a comfortable 2-0 lead well before the halftime whistle.
If that game plan can work again, Italy will be in good shape in the final. The longer Italy goes without a goal, the more Spain can control the tempo, neutralize the skills of Balotelli and frustrate the heck out of him. That would be a powder keg for the Azzurri, as nothing is more dangerous to their finals success than a frustrated, menacing striker looking to create something from nothing.
The allure of Balotelli being in the Euro 2012 final is almost too much to handle. No matter which way the match goes, we know with Mario on the field, something super—or something totally stupefying—could happen at a moment's notice. If we are lucky, it will be both.