Having already helped his club side break one long-running hoodoo, Mario Balotelli could be about to do the same for his country. The striker was part of the Manchester City side that last season won the club’s first league title since 1968, the same year Italy were last victorious in the European Championships. Euro 2012 is Balotelli’s chance to etch his name into folklore for the national team as he has done in the Premier League.
In the time since Italy were last triumphant in the Euros they have won two World Cups, finished as runners-up twice and claimed third-place once. It is a record the envy of most countries. The tale of the Azzurri’s European Championships past however is one of disappointment. Italy did not even qualify for the two tournaments that immediately followed their 1968 victory, despite making the final of the 1970 World Cup. Neither were they present in 1984 or 1992, while in 1996 and 2004 Italian hopes were ended at the group stage.
Four years ago Italy were eliminated in the quarter-finals on penalties by eventual winners – and Sunday’s opponents – Spain. Italy were the reigning world champions but Spain were in the ascendency, the tiki-taka mindset taking hold on the way to dethroning Italy as World Cup holders as well as dumping Roberto Donandoni’s side out of Euro 2008. The match itself was dour, with both sides as guilty as each other, and was very nearly decided by a rare Gianluigi Buffon mistake when the Juventus goalkeeper fumbled a simple shot from Marcos Senna. It went to penalties, which saw Spain hold their nerve from 12 yards and the rest is history.
Dour is not a word that can usually be used when Balotelli is around. If Italy is to avenge their defeat from four years prior it may depend on the mood in which the 21-year-old approaches the match. Italy’s squad is noticeably light on goals – the five forwards selected have 20 international goals between them, half of which belong to Antonio Di Natale, and the 23-man party as a whole can only boast 46 goals combined. Spain’s squad has 123 goals between them – Fernando Torres has eight more on his own than Italy’s five forwards combined. The absence of Giuseppe Rossi through injury is a blow but the Villarreal striker has only scored six times for Italy. If ever there was a time for one of Prandelli’s strikers to prove they are international calibre, this is it.
Balotelli is not one to shirk a challenge, for good or ill. That sometimes means Balotelli stands up when he would be better off walking away but games do not come much bigger than facing the current world and European champions in the opening match of Euro 2012. It is an occasion made for Balotelli perhaps like no other. In form, after ending his campaign with 17 goals – the most he has ever scored in a season – Balotelli could be about to join Italy’s pantheon of greats.
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