Mario Balotelli came into Sunday's match between Italy and Mexico being talked about for all the wrong reasons. Nine days before in Prague he had received two yellow cards in a four-minute span and left Italy with 10 men in their World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic.
Balotelli didn't even look at his coach or his teammates as he walked off the field, then proceeded to beat every inanimate object he could find as he went down the tunnel. The legitimacy of his second booking can be questioned, but it was clear that we had seen Bad Mario for the first time in an Italy shirt.
But Mario was much more super on the field at the Maracana. While he did not have the dominant performance that we've seen in games like the Euro 2012 semifinal and any number of games for AC Milan this season, Balotelli's performance was exactly what Italy ended up needing.
The very beginning of the match were mixed. Four times in the first 19 minutes of the match Balotelli turned and hammered shots from 25 yards or more when he could have held the ball up and allowed more help to arrive.
It wasn't all bad in the opening movements though. One of those four long ones was a powerful strike that Jose de Jesus Corona was forced to parry away and then beat a pair of Italian trailers for the rebound. Two minutes before he had stung the palms of Corona after getting on the end of a Riccardo Montolivo cross.
After Andrea Pirlo opened the scoring for the Italians, the rest of the first half was a series of almosts for Balotelli and the Azzurri in the Mexican penalty area.
Two minutes after Pirlo's sublime free kick, Balotelli misfired a layoff pass to Claudio Marchisio that would have given the Juventus man a clear shot at doubling the lead. Corona beat Balotelli to a few balls that could have gotten him onto the scoresheet before the teams headed to the locker room.
Still, it was a promising start for the Italian star. Balotelli has had a tendency to become frustrated when he is not given decent service. In games like the qualifier in Prague and February's friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam, Balotelli's frustration with not getting into the game was apparent.
In February he kicked the advertising boards at the Amsterdam Arena, prompting Prandelli to haul him off close to the hour. In Prague, of course, that frustration resulted in his two yellow cards—and him kicking everything insight.
Unlike those two matches, Balotelli was in this game from the very beginning, and the near misses never discouraged him from continuing to sniff out a goal to put Italy ahead.
In the second half, Balotelli started getting roughed up a bit more by the Mexican defense. It looked as though El Tri were trying to provoke him into replicating his display from Prague. It likely didn't help the striker's psyche that referee Enrique Osses ignored a clear foul on Balotelli as he was running for a deep through ball.
The striker was clearly tripped just outside the box, but the Chilean ref—who had a terrible game overall and missed at least two more fouls against Balotelli—waved play on. An incredulous Balotelli spiked the shoe he had lost in the tackle in disbelief as the Mexicans attempted to counterattack.
Balotelli kept his head, though, and it paid off in the 78th minute. A good long pass from Daniele De Rossi was volleyed on by Emanuele Giaccherini, and Balotelli completely overpowered Mexican center-back Hector Moreno before charging in full stretch to poke the ball past Corona for the winner.
It was a superb display of strength to hold off Moreno—who is not a small man. But even in this moment of triumph, Balotelli gave us a reason to scratch our heads: he celebrated by ripping off his shirt, garnering a yellow card in only the first game of the tournament.
Granted, Balotelli was booked in the first match of Euro 2012 and avoided suspension thereafter, but anything can happen in a tournament like this, and losing Balotelli would be a huge blow to the Italian side if he does garner another booking before the slate is wiped clean.
The booking is probably the reason Balotelli was replaced by Alberto Gilardino with five minutes remaining. Cesare Prandelli is going to have to manage him well over the next two games in order to ensure he stays on the field, especially for the big group stage finale against Brazil—a team he scored two goals against in March.
Overall it was a performance that Italy needed. His impressive goal won the game, and he kept his head through some frustrating officiating and some heavy fouls from Mexico. Balotelli can be better, and perhaps he will need to be as the tournament goes on if Italy are to win it. But this much is clear: Italy got Super Mario today.
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