Expert analysis of the events in Poland and Ukraine
Having seen Cristiano Ronaldo join the party, Mario Balotelli picked the perfect moment to make his own grand entrance at Euro 2012.
In truth, Balotelli was a little unfortunate to have been relegated to the bench for the match against Ireland, having worked hard against Croatia. But if the Manchester City man needed any incentive to demonstrate to Cesare Prandelli that he deserved to start, then he certainly proved it in a blistering moment of physical dexterity.
What will surely become known as the 'Poznan Pivot' produced a goal of stunning beauty to ease any lingering fears that Italy may relinquish their lead and exit the tournament. It might just also free the young talent from his shackles of gloom, to turn him into potentially the player of the tournament.
Balotelli has always believed he is as good as any of the top performers in Poland and Ukraine and with the Azzurri facing France, Ukraine or England in the quarter-finals, he must fancy his chances of delivery on his promise to be the best in the business.
He had come into the competition with question marks over whether he had the temperament for the big occasion; they looked set to be justified when, in the opening match against Spain, he dallied on the ball when he had time to shoot.
He's no stranger to racist chants, which have reared their head again at this tournament, but the opposition fans' boos that welcomed his every touch against Ireland were borne of fear of the flashes of brilliance he has shown in the Premier League.
However, there is a sense that within the Italian camp he needs guidance from the more level-headed players – and Leonardo Bonucci’s celebrations with Balotelli centred around silencing the goalscorer as he looked to set to turn on the Irish fans.
With Balotelli already on a yellow, it was a quick piece of thinking from the Juventus defender – but the quarter-final tie will once again have everyone on their guard for a moment of Mario madness.
"Hush now, you beautiful fool"
Having gone head-to-head with most of yesterday’s opponents in the English game, Balotelli was prepared for the physical approach – although replays suggested that he did swing an errant elbow towards Richard Dunne, which fortunately for the perpetrator the veteran defender decided to completely ignore.
In the build-up to the game, Balotelli had suffered a slight knee injury which needed strapping – adding to the intrigue surrounding whether it was genuine or one of those 'diplomatic' injuries that Italians use to soften the blow of leaving a player out. However, like the potential of Spain and Croatia baking 'il biscotto' to ensure their mutual progress, it was proved to be much ado about nothing.
In the event, the tussle against the Irish was everything it was expected. There was no denying that Cesare Prandelli’s side – returning to the narrow 4-4-2 which dominated their qualifying group – were the classier outfit, but once again the problems lay in getting the ball into decent goalscoring positions.
Tellingly, both goals came from corners and while there was a bit of fortune about Antonio Cassano's opener bouncing off the striker’s shoulder and in under the bar, there was no denying that Balotelli’s was straight off the sweet spot of the boot – and this when he was also having his shirt pulled off his back by John O’Shea.
Unlike against Croatia, Prandelli used his substitutions to excellent effect, with Alessandro Diamanti given a good 30 minutes in place of the spent Cassano. The former West Ham man used the ball intelligently, although he should never be allowed to make a challenge, conceding two free-kicks in quick succession in dangerous areas.
Diamanti’s dangerzone is further forward and when Balotelli replaced Antonio Di Natale he had the perfect target man for the ball knocked diagonally from left to right over the Irish defence.
Prandelli needed to freshen up the attack and Di Natale was deserving a start; with Balotelli not 100%, the coach had an easier decision facing him – just as it was when it was time to introduce new faces from the bench.
One of those may not play with much of a smile but inside he must be having a good giggle at the thought of proving his critics wrong.
More Euro 2012 analysis, reportage and humour
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