Talking points and finger-pointing will undoubtedly be in abundance following Italy’s Group Stage exit from the 2014 World Cup. Debates will rage on the peninsula over various topics, the countless issues surrounding the collective Azzurri failure will likely overtake the pages of the nation’s sports papers in the coming days and weeks.
Cesare Prandelli’s tactics will be a major feature of the conversation, the coach’s constant tinkering with both tactics and personnel raising questions over the future of his tenure. The latest Luis Suarez biting incident is sure to garner major publicity, the Liverpool striker’s reputation ensuring he is once again vilified for his on-field behaviour.
The debatable red card shown to Claudio Marchisio—for a perceived foul on Egidio Alvaro Rios—was the first of his career, and playing with 10 men for the last 30 minutes provides an all-too-convenient scapegoat. It also adds to the consensus among those who hold the Azzurri dear that referee Marco Rodriguez unduly affected the match at the Arena das Dunas.
And yet there is no escaping one simple fact from Italy’s loss to Uruguay: Mario Balotelli failed again.
A shining star at Euro 2012, the blue shirt of his country has often brought the best from the Milan striker, a player who has often appeared to deliver his finest performances on the international stage. Yet for every stellar display, there are countless others which leave the 24-year-old open to criticism.
Today was certainly one of the latter for “Super Mario,” a game in which he appeared far more likely to be sent off rather than score a winning goal. He may have only played 45 minutes, but Balotelli’s contribution was one which gave the arguments of his detractors plenty of ammunition to use against him.
After scoring the decisive goal in the victory over England, the former Manchester City star has offered Italy little, recording just one shot on target in the following two matches according to stats site WhoScored.com. In picking up two yellow cards in those losses, Balotelli would also have been suspended had Italy progressed, a further mark against his displays in Brazil.
Looking more closely at his statistics from the Uruguay defeat—again courtesy of WhoScored—makes for even more damning reading, showing he recorded just 17 touches in the first half. Despite being withdrawn at half time, his total of four fouls was greater than any other Italian player who took part in the match.
Prandelli told a press conference only last week (h/t Yahoo Sport) that Balotelli was “the man who would take us to the moon,” reaffirming his well-documented faith in the striker. Yet he is now left ruing the decision to persevere with the player, telling reporters in a post-game interview that he had little option but to withdraw the player.
"You never know when Balotelli is nervous or calm,” the coach said (quotes in Italian courtesy of La Gazzetta dello Sport). “I didn't want to end up with 10." Given the player’s disposition and the ugly fouls he committed, it is difficult to disagree with that sentiment.
The loss of Giuseppe Rossi hit the Italy squad hard, limiting their options and narrowing down the number of quality attacking players available to the coach. Yet while it is easy to look at the dire displays of Antonio Cassano, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile in Brazil, Balotelli is the one potential world-class attacking talent the Azzurri can call upon and must do better in those circumstances.
His continued problems make relying upon him increasingly difficult, and with Prandelli resigning (as per FootballItalia), the striker appears to have lost his biggest supporter. The same source states that Italian FA President Giancarlo Abete will ask the coach to reconsider, but without him Balotelli may no longer find himself as the centrepiece of the Azzurri setup.
Always a difficult character, Mario Balotelli disappeared when Italy needed him the most, failing to deliver on the biggest stage of all. He is not solely to blame—and may not have been the one biting defenders—but without him at his best, Italy were rendered toothless.