Enfant terrible Balotelli conquers man's world

AFP, Thursday 28 Jun 2012

Mario Balotelli finally delivered on his promise as he took centre-stage in the biggest match of his young life to send Italy into the Euro 2012 final against Spain on Sunday


The Azzurri proved once again they have the Indian sign on Germany as a superb double by Balotelli saw them to a 2-1 win - the third time they have beaten Die Mannschaft in a major tournament semi-final.

They are now unbeaten in eight competitive matches against Germany and the enigmatic 21-year-old Balotelli was the major reason for that.

In Italy his coaches have been saying for years that he has the potential to become one of the best players in the world but until Thursday, he had yet to prove it.

But in two moments of clinical brilliance in the first half, the Manchester City star buried Germany and made a mockery of the pre-match betting odds.

On 20 minutes he showed a striker's instinct to find a yard of space behind Holger Badstuber to head home Antonio Cassano's left wing cross from six yards out.

And then nine minutes from the break he gambled and won as Philipp Lahm failed to cut out Riccardo Montolivo's long ball and the forward was away and running in on Manuel Neuer before smashing the ball into the top corner with unerring confidence.

That showed he is learning and indeed listening to his coach Cesare Prandelli who has been urging him all tournament to try to get behind the defence to stretch the opposition.

And when Prandelli decided to switch to a more defensive five-man midfield 10 minutes into the second period, it was Cassano who was hauled off leaving Balotelli to play the disciplined lone frontman role until cramp ended his night 20 minutes from time.

In truth he wasn't the only hero in a blue shirt as Andrea Pirlo was majestic in dictating play and tempo while Cassano was a constant thorn in the side of the German defence.

In fact it was his fancy footwork and pirouette to escape the attentions of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng that created the space from which he could pick out Balotelli with a cross on the first goal.

And in the build-up it was Pirlo's ability to retain possession and find space with a feint here and twist of the hips there that left Mesut Ozil backing off.

That allowed the Juventus playmaker to rake a long ball out to Giorgio Chiellini on the left, stretching the play before the full-back passed to Cassano to dance through the right side of the defence.

Despite their important contributions, it was only right that Balotelli should steal the show with his cool brace.

His team-mate Daniele De Rossi had called him an "ometto" last week, an Italian word that means someone who is becoming a man and starting to take responsibility.

That he certainly did but he then stripped off his shirt to celebrate his second goal, a move that earned a booking, demonstrating that he is not yet the finished article, either as a player or a man.

On the hour mark he was guilty of going for glory and screwing a shot wide when two runners had scampered into better positions screaming for a pass.

But Italy held on and Balotelli, the errant wildman more known for his madcap antics than his footballing prowess, finally made his biggest headlines on the pitch.

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