Why Mario Balotelli Is Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli's Biggest World Cup Headache

Matteo BonettiContributor IMay 26, 2014

FLORENCE, ITALY - MAY 20:  Mario Balotelli of Italy during a training session at Coverciano on May 20, 2014 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The Mario Balotelli saga will continue far into the summer now that his Serie A season with Milan has concluded.

After enduring an inconsistent campaign, where moments of sheer brilliance were contrasted with 90 minutes of lacklustre play and head-scratching decisions, the striker will go into the World Cup as Italy's hope at the front of the attack.

Cesare Prandelli has long supported Balotelli. Back in the 2012 Euro tournament, he used Mario alongside Antonio Cassano for a large part of the competition—a decision that paid off, especially against Germany in the semi-finals, when Balotelli scored a thunderous brace that helped the Azzurri go all the way into the Euro 2012 final.

However, it's hard to determine just how high Balotelli's ceiling is. The player has divided fans and media alike, and he will have to prove that he's capable of propelling a nation to success.

Just last month, Balotelli snapped on SKY Italia after he was accused of not being a top player and not criticising himself enough by Zvonimir Boban. The Milan striker proceeded to lash out against the pundits, saying they knew nothing about football before removing his microphone and storming off.

FLORENCE, ITALY - MAY 20:  (L-R)  Mario Balotelli, Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano of Italy during a training session at Coverciano on May 20, 2014 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

There's no questioning Balotelli's talent, but his work rate is still suspect and Cesare Prandelli will need 11 soldiers in every match, as their group will be one of the trickiest to get out of.

Their first opponents will be England in the stifling heat of Manaus and Prandelli should expect to see the English defenders kicking away at Balotelli from the opening whistle.

It's a tactic that opposition defences have used quite often when marking Balotelli, knowing that an aggressive challenge will frustrate the striker and cause him to lose focus and start pouting on the field.

There is another factor in all this. Cesare Prandelli's biggest headache will be determining who starts up front, and his decision might not have anything to do with Balotelli's antics.

Mario Balotelli Goals
2011/12Manchester City13
2012/13AC Milan12
2013/14AC Milan14

Ciro Immobile stole the show in Serie A this past season and led the scoring charts with 22 goals. The Torino hitman has been called to Prandelli's provisional squad and is expected to make the final 23-man roster.

To make matters even more confusing, Immobile has shown that he can score from any position on the field and there isn't a more in-form Italian No.9 right now.

Balotelli's season was met with tumultuous swings, as he went from being heavily criticised for disappearing during Milan's most important matches of the season against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, to being applauded for his occasional moments of brilliance from outside the box and in dead-ball situations.

Prandelli has plenty of wealth in the attacking sector, meaning it could be the first Italian national side we see that has more depth up front than in the defense.

Balotelli, if he plays, will be watched closely from all angles by fans as well as scouts, and a positive display in the competition could result in some of Europe's lavish spenders making offers for the 23-year-old attacker.