PETER Pan or a man? Mario Balotelli scored Italy’s first penalty last night, calmly hesitating before beating Joe Hart in the shoot-out that left England the Lost Boys as they exited from the Euro 2012 finals.
Balotelli was neither Super Mario nor Silly Mario during the 120 minutes, missing chance after chance. Sloppy Mario, maybe? But that was harsh as he threatened throughout with an air as laden as that studied gait and razor-sharp hair-cut.
Nevertheless, Balotelli missed five clear opportunities as England, on the ropes, somehow held on until they crumbled in the shoot-out.
Italy’s tactics were clear. With England criminally deciding to sit off Andrea Pirlo, he picked up the baton and was allowed to orchestrate. Time and again he created opportunities for Balotelli with Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli asking his strikers to run in behind England’s central defence of Joleon Lescott and John Terry.
It brought to mind a pre-match comment by the former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, who had said: “Balotelli knows the English defence, he’s faster than both Terry and Lescott combined. He can lead Italy to Euro 2012 glory.”
But it was glorious profligacy during that period. The enduring image of the first half was a frustrated Balotelli thumping a post so hard with his right-foot that it quivered after he was beaten to Antonio Cassano’s header back across goal – connecting with another peerless Pirlo pass – only to be beaten to the ball by Lescott.
The Manchester City defender had boasted that he had the beating of Balotelli in training and would do so in this
encounter but he was being stretched. Balotelli may appear languid but his movement is deceptive. And he is deceptively quick. And strong.
Inevitably the camera also likes to linger on him. There were “super slow-mos” of that booting of a post – but it was Balotelli who lingered again as he ran on to another sumptuous Pirlo pass.
Played onside by Terry, his first touch was poor, his second worse and then the defender superbly blocked a half-hearted shot from distance with Joe Hart rushing from goal.
Guess what? Balotelli then spurned another chance from another Pirlo pass although at least this time he connected more fully with the ball only for Hart – who the striker had tried to beat from 40 yards in the first minute – to easily save.
If England were fortunate he was so wasteful, then Italy were fortunate also that their opponents had not taken their chances in what quickly developed into a wonderfully open, committed encounter. The Italians made a statement throughout by keeping both their strikers upfield when they defended corners.
This was no catenaccio or cat-and-mouse. Prandelli had spoken about a desire to attack and he was good to his word.
His team radiated that positivity and although Balotelli had not taken those chances his inclusion was another bold step by the coach.
So many words have been spoken about Balotelli. The media briefings at the Italian training camp have become the ‘Daily Balotelli’, with a succession of players questioned on his temperament more than his talent. But it was by no means certain that he would be selected for this encounter given his performances so far for Italy.
He’s young, still just 21, but it’s not been the most distinguished of international careers and one in which his achievements on the pitch have not outweighed his maverick nature.