Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny that when Mario Balotelli is on song, he is among the best forwards in the world. The man whom Roberto Mancini said could not be trusted, knocked favourites Germany out of Euro 2012 with a display of attacking prowess that would be the envy of any striker. Speed, awareness, power, composure in front of goal – it was all there. A stunned German side was unable to recover from his one-two punch in the first half.
The second goal in particular highlighted the devastating impact Balotelli can have on a game. A perfectly timed run allowed him to slip behind Germany’s back line. His first touch took the ball away from the defender struggling to recover. The second was an unstoppable shot smashed into the top left corner. All German keeper Manuel Neuer could do was wave his left arm and fall down.
Less than a week ago Mancini, who is Balotelli's manager at Manchester City, urged the young striker not to be a pain in the backside for his Italian manager, Cesare Prandelli, who left Balotelli on the bench in the game against Ireland. To steal a line from Forrest Gump, Balotelli is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.
The greatest players in any sport have typically married exceptional talent with exceptional temperament. The ability to keep one’s emotions in check is the often the difference between winning and losing. So far it has been a lesson Balotelli has not learned. To quote Mancini from that day three months ago: “He is a top player. He can do everything. He can score two goals against Arsenal next week. But he can also take a red card.”
He can also sleepwalk through a game if he is not in the mood. However his prodigious talent demands managers must take their chances with playing him. As in the case of the game against Germany, the rewards can be enormous. In hindsight, Prandelli’s benching of Super Mario may have been a master-stroke as it seems to have lit a fire under him. A focused and determined Balotelli gives Italy the cutting edge they need if they are to carve open a Spanish defence that has only allowed one goal all tournament, albeit to Italy.
Worryingly for Spain, Balotelli might be coming of age. He made all the right noises after Italy’s semi-final win, saying it was “the most wonderful night of my life so far” but added that he hoped “Sunday is even better.” More strikingly, he called on his team-mates to avoid being frustrated by Spain’s possession game and concentrate on playing their own brand of football.
Not that Balotelli stayed entirely out of trouble for the 68 minutes he was on the pitch. After scoring his second, he earned a yellow card for taking off his shirt and flexing his muscles in celebration, but it would be churlish to criticise him for it after the racial abuse he has suffered during the tournament. He was even able to joke about it afterward. “They didn’t get angry because I was booked for taking my shirt off, but they saw my physique and got jealous!” he said.
Italy will need Balotelli to be in the same sort of mood on Sunday if they are to win. Spain will have to plan to contain him as well as Andrea Pirlo. Whether you love Balotelli or hate him, you can't ignore him.