He was the hero against England, scoring the crucial second-half goal that gave Italy their opening 2-1 win at this summer's World Cup, but after an underwhelming performance against Costa Rica, Mario Balotelli will be under a lot of pressure in the Azzurri's final group game against Uruguay.
The Milan striker is famously unpredictable, both on and off the field, but if Italy are to progress at the tournament, Cesare Prandelli will need his front man to be at his very best against the South Americans, who themselves have a fiery, potent attacking force in the shape of Luis Suarez.
Should the Liverpool star continue the form he showed against the English, Italy's defence will have its work cut out for it, and the likes of Giorgio Chiellini will undoubtedly be feeling the heat, but most eyes will be on Balotelli, who is often devastating and disappointing in the same game.
Few players in Brazil have as much potential as Balotelli, but the 23-year-old has been under pressure at home this season during a difficult Serie A campaign with the Rossoneri, and many feel that after promising so much for so long, it's coming to the point of now-or-never for the former Inter and Manchester City man.
Recent comments from Barbara Berlusconi (here in English via football-italia.net) suggest that his club are considering selling their highest-profile player. “Balotelli is a great player and a real Italian talent," she told the Italian media, "but nobody is irreplaceable. We’ll see what happens.”
A dominant performance at the World Cup would push his value up, and perhaps force Milan to think twice about selling Balotelli, in much the same way that an influential effort against Uruguay would give Prandelli reason to keep faith with him up front, in favour of trying other options—something that the manager certainly has with Ciro Immobile.
The Borussia Dortmund striker was prolific for Torino last season, working incredibly well with Alessio Cerci and eventually ending the year as Capocannoniere, the league's top scorer. Balotelli remains Prandelli's first choice, but many now wonder if Immobile, though not as famous outside of Italy, is actually a better option for the Nazionale.
The 24-year-old from Torre Annunziata, just outside of Naples, is a different kind of striker to Balotelli, and though less explosive, tends to be more dependable and works harder for his team.
Played with Cerci, and possibly his old friend Lorenzo Insigne, Immobile represents a gamble, in PR terms at least, because dropping 'Balo' would cause plenty of controversy if Italy still fail to progress. However, it might just be one worth taking for the final tie on Tuesday at the Arena das Dunas in Natal.
The Gazzetta dello Sport believes that the manager might choose to play both of his star strikers together, an interesting proposition that would offer plenty of firepower if the pair can work well as a unit.
The change to a 3-5-2—with an all-Juventus defence of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli—would mean that there'd be less space for the likes of Antonio Cassano, Antonio Candreva or Insigne, but would allow the two strikers to create space for one another in front of a midfield, presumably packed with the passing abilities of Daniele De Rossi, Marco Verratti and the ever-impressive Andrea Pirlo.
Having company in front of goal could get the best out of Balo, and give him a talented foil to work with. But, if he stumbles and Immobile succeeds, it would also give his detractors a very visible side-by-side comparison with which to undermine him in the future. Whatever Prandelli chooses to do, the next—and possibly final—appearance in Brazil is set to be one of the most important in Balotelli's career.
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