Friday will be the first time Super Mario has pulled on Savoy blue since Euro 2012. He was set to play for the Italians in last month's qualifiers, but an eye condition forced him to have laser eye surgery and made him unavailable for the games.
Italy has again had problems converting chances into goals, as evidenced by their failure to score more than twice, despite their domination of play against the Maltese (65-percent possession, 15 shots, and a whopping 15 corners).
Cesare Prandelli was hoping to rely on Giampaolo Pazzini and a cadre of young strikers in the first two qualifying matches. But Pazzini, who was coming off a hat trick in his AC Milan debut, was injured in training and only saw the field for the last 20 minutes of the Malta match. Younger forwards Osvaldo and Destro contributed three of the four goals the Italians scored in the two matches, but they were also wasteful in the extreme, especially against Malta, where the Azzurri could easily have scored two or three more times.
To have Balotelli, who is easily the most talented forward Prandelli can call on, back in the fold is a boon to their chances. Look for him to partner with either Osvaldo, Destro, or Prandelli favorite Alberto Gilardino, who is seeing his first time with the national team in nearly two years.
After his humiliating exclusion from the team during the Euros due to his implication in the calcioscommesse scandal, the Zenit St. Petersburg man is back in the fold for the Azzurri. Cleared of all charges, Criscito can now focus once again on what he was focusing on before his world fell apart: becoming the best left-back in the world—a feat that he is very, very close to achieving.
His return to the roster, in addition to the return of center-back Giorgio Chiellini from injury, should make an already solid defense into a brick wall in front of goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. The question will be whether he finds the field. It will be his first time with the team in months, and Prandelli has shown some indecision in approaching the left-back position lately.
That may have been due of Criscito's absence, as he was the solid No. 1 at the position before his troubles. I expect to see him once again locking down the left side of Italy's defense.
L'architetto has had a run of bad form at Juventus lately. He did not nearly look like his usual dominant self in Champions League matches against Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk or in a goalless draw two weeks ago against Fiorentina.
On the other hand, he's nearly equaled his goal tally from last year in the Serie A, and he was deadly in orchestrating a dominant 4-1 win against Roma. It may be a matter of managing the midfielder's workload as he gets older, and if that is indeed the case, Italian fans are going to hope he's fresh for this week, especially the second game on this slate against Denmark.
The Armenians can be a feisty team, and Pirlo will have to be at his best over the next two matches in order for Italy to take all six points from these two games. As he goes, so will the Azzurri.