World Cup 2014: Why Italy Must Continue to Start Mario Balotelli

Bobak Abdolmohammadi@@BobdolmoFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2014

Italy's Mario Balotelli applauds after being replaced in the second half of the group D World Cup soccer match between England and Italy at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Italy are in excellent position to move on from Group D after just one matchday, defeating England 2-1 in Manaus in a highly entertaining game.

Goals from Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli were enough to overcome an admittedly spirited English side who pressured Italy for large stretches of the game.

Toward the final half hour of the game, however, the level of play tailed off, presumably due to the high humidity and heat in the Arena Amazonia.

While Italy displayed some shakiness defensively, notably with Giorgio Chiellini being forced to play out of position at left-back, they were able to stem the tide of England's Liverpool-heavy midfield and attack.

Raheem Sterling in particular gave Italy a tough time, but his inability to deliver a final ball after all his mazy dribbling ultimately contributed to the disappointing result for England. 

One area of concern heading into the match for Italy, however, was the state of their own attack.

Ciro Immobile had just enjoyed a prolific season at Torino, leading the Italian Serie A in goals. His form led Borussia Dortmund to splash out around €20 million for his services and certainly caught the attention of Italy manager Cesare Prandelli.

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Meanwhile, Balotelli endured a complicated year with AC Milan, who admittedly struggled through one of their worst years since the 1990s.

Despite finishing as Milan's top scorer on the year with a respectable 14-goal tally, Balotelli failed to match expectations after his role in propelling Milan into the Champions League after arriving at the San Siro in January 2013.

His often indifferent form and seeming detachment from the cause has led many Milan supporters to encourage the board to cash in on him following the World Cup.

Despite all this, Prandelli has maintained that Balotelli is his man, and Balotelli has delivered more often than not while wearing the jersey of the Azzurri. His role in Italy's run to the Euro 2012 final was particularly memorable.

Immobile has done his best to make Prandelli's decision difficult, scoring a hat-trick in a pre-World Cup friendly against Fluminense, while Balotelli appeared lethargic and slow in his cameo in the same match.

This display led many Italian supporters to call for Immobile's inclusion in the starting XI against England. The issue with such a scenario was that it would force Prandelli to either exclude Balotelli or change his team's formation to accommodate two strikers.

Hindsight, as always, is 20/20, but Prandelli clearly made the right decision in not giving in to public pressure. 

Balotelli had a fantastic game, scoring the game-winning goal and coming close just before half-time with a cheeky chip of English goalkeeper (and former Manchester City teammate) Joe Hart.

Immobile replaced Balotelli with about 20 minutes remaining, by which time Italy had firmly committed to defending in numbers to combat fatigue and protect their lead.

The familiarity Balotelli has with Andrea Pirlo and Italy's midfielders may prove vital in future matches as well. Along with Balotelli, Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian were very impressive combining on the right flank.

All things considered, it is a fantastic start for Italy, who will hope to receive a boost in terms of Mattia De Sciglio and Gianluigi Buffon's fitness levels. De Sciglio's absence forced Prandelli to play it conservatively and deputize Chiellini at left-back. 

Given his lack of comfort at that position, especially in an attacking sense, all of Italy's attacks came from either the middle or the right flank. With De Sciglio back at left-back, there should be more balance to the side, which will benefit Balotelli greatly.

Inconsistency has been one of the main issues with Balotelli's career so far, but his display Saturday night ensured Prandelli and Italy have no reason to doubt the form and commitment of their star attacker heading into Friday's match with Costa Rica.