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Super Mario time

MARIO Balotelli was the first name on Cesare Prandelli's wish list when he took over from Marcello Lippi and promised to lift Italy out of a fog of conservatism.

Like Antonio Cassano, another name which encourages negative headlines because of temperament rather than talent, Prandelli felt he might use Balotelli as a touchstone for his new tactical outlook.

When he was quoted as saying that he could not bring Balotelli to Poland because he couldn't pick a man who might be sent off in the first match of the tournament, he sent a signal to the mercurial Manchester City striker that he wanted no more nasty headlines.

Lippi, the strict disciplinarian, could not abide the thought of Balotelli in his squad for the duration of South Africa 2010 and left him at home, as he did with Cassano.

It is deeply ironic that both Balotelli and Cassano have barely had a word written about them in the last few weeks while other more sensational headlines dominate the Italian press.

That Prandelli is now the manager of the team with the biggest black cloud hovering over them at this tournament is as much down to Italian magistrates and a mustard-keen constabulary than the rhythms of championship football, when pressure reaches breaking point on a daily basis and fragile characters often crack down the middle.

Rather than wait a decent time after Prandelli and his squad came home from Poland and the Ukraine, the polizia descended on Italy's training base near Florence, mob-handed, and plucked Domenico Criscito from the group before casting aspersions on Gianluigi Buffon.


Luckily for Prandelli, Stefano Mauri was already injured and out of the reckoning for Euro 2012 before he was named as part of the betting scandal which has rocked Italian football.

Giuseppe Rossi was also left behind by Lippi and Prandelli restored him to his squad immediately when he took over as Italian coach, but a cruciate ligament operation in November put an end to his hopes of participation and, indeed, a grand plan to release Italy from Lippi's straitjacket and allow attacking players to play.

Prandelli is still in the eye of a storm and no matter how much he wants to put the scandal and its fallout out of his mind, it will never be far from the surface in the next few weeks.

An absolutely dreadful warm-up defeat by Russia in Zurich last week showed just how badly events have impacted on Prandelli and his team.

There was almost an element of surrender in Prandelli's suggestion that if the rest of Europe thought Italy should be bounced from the tournament, he would have no problem with that.

So that's the preamble and it's not the first time Italy have set off on a journey through a big tournament in the worst possible shape only to claw their way by hook or crook to the top of the pile.

This time is different. There is still the strong possibility that further revelations will emerge and there appears to be an appetite in Italy for blood.


And there's always Balotelli to throw in a curve ball and create some more chaos, but he is so naturally talented, there is an equally strong chance that Prandelli's fatherly approach to a loose cannon might just pay the dividend he is hoping for.

For Ireland, Italy no longer hold any fears. The last three encounters between the two countries tilted the balance firmly in Giovanni Trapattoni's direction.

In Bari during the qualification for World Cup 2010, Italy were unlucky to have Giampaolo Pazzini sent-off for an alleged elbow on John O'Shea but very fortunate to survive with a 1-1 draw.

The return at Croke Park was Ireland's to win but loose defending at crucial moments cost Trapattoni and Ireland dearly and allowed the Italians to walk away with a 2-2 draw they didn't deserve.


But it is perhaps the least significant fixture between the two nations in recent years -- in Liege a year ago -- which could yet be the most significant in the context of Euro 2012.

This was a game which Ireland won well -- and with a shadow team.

When Trapattoni sits down a few days before the final group game in Poland, there is no doubt that the 2-0 victory in Belgium will be primed and ready on the DVD player for review.

Play like they did that day and the three points everyone secretly believes will be won against the Italians will be in the bag -- with the cat.