While Italy’s prospects of success at the 2014 World Cup remain difficult to assess, there are a number of men who can undoubtedly carry them further than many expect. Without the injured Giuseppe Rossi, Cesare Prandelli will lean on the brilliance of veteran stars Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo more than ever before.
Yet for the Azzurri, it always seems that the performances of another name will most likely determine just how long Italy remains in Brazil this summer. Unlike his predecessor, the current Italy coach gave Mario Balotelli a central role in his side, handing him his debut in his first game in charge.
Where Marcello Lippi appeared to fear the temperamental striker, his replacement on the Azzurri bench immediately placed his faith in the Palermo native, and he has continued to do so ever since. He has been handsomely rewarded for that brave decision, Balotelli seemingly reserving the best performances of his career for when he pulls on the famous light-blue shirt to represent his country.
Never was that more true than in his first international tournament, with the former Manchester City striker undoubtedly the most impactful member of the Italy side that reached the final of Euro 2012. Having already dispatched Ireland, he would net in the penalty-shootout victory over England before scoring twice against Germany in the semi-final.
Speaking to reporters after the match (h/t Yahoo Sport), the striker called the latter of those displays “the greatest night of my life,” and it is difficult to argue with that in a footballing context. It was the kind of performance which showed just how great the 23-year-old can potentially be, but it also hints at the huge expectation placed upon him.
That will only intensify at the World Cup, particularly when looking at the other attacking players Prandelli has opted to fill his squad this time around. Even in the absence of Rossi, there was no place for veteran stars such as Antonio Di Natale and Francesco Totti, making Balotelli among the most experienced members of the Azzurri.
Only nine players have more caps than his current tally of 30, while only Daniele De Rossi (15) and Andrea Pirlo (13) have netted more than his total of 12 international goals. Indeed, Balotelli is Italy’s leading goal-getter since the last World Cup, and he will be likely to carry the scoring burden in Brazil.
It is an incredible weight for a player his age to carry, although Prandelli has urged him to simply concentrate on his own task, rather than attempting to do too much. “He shouldn’t think about solving all the national team’s problems, or to take them on his shoulders,” the coach told reporters last week (h/t Football-Italia).
It is typical of the approach the coach has taken with his star pupil, protecting him where possible but unafraid of taking him to task when he deems it necessary. “We have a good relationship,” Prandelli said of Balotelli in an interview with FIFA.com earlier this year, adding “we both know how to get across what we want to say.”
That is very different from his position at club level, where rumours continue to circulate that Milan will sell him this summer to rid themselves of his problematic influence. Still without a replacement for Clarence Seedorf, owner Silvio Berlusconi told reporters (h/t ESPNFC.com) that the Rossoneri must “wait until we have our new coach in place," before taking any decision on Balotelli’s future.
The contrasting approaches could not be starker, yet the player has continued to deliver for Milan, netting 30 goals in 53 games since joining them in January 2013. It is that kind of form the Azzurri will need in Brazil, with the need for goals only heightened by the decision to omit Rossi.
In that same interview with FIFA, Prandelli said that “when he fulfils his potential he will make a huge difference to any team,” and Italy will hope Mario Balotelli does just that this summer. No pressure.