Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen. The slogan of choice for sexists the world over, but it’s one Cesare Prandelli might want to bear in mind when deliberating over his starting line-up for Sunday evening in Kiev. The fact that Italy are today looking forward to a Euro 2012 quarter-final, instead of glumly trooping on to a flight home, is thanks to Spain and the impotency of Ireland's attack yes, but also to Mario Balotelli.
For all the Azzurri's superiority at the Stadion Miejski last night, the fighting Irish were only definitively killed off when Super Mario powered up in the 90th minute. Like most of the best things he does it was the casualness, the sheer half-assed-ness of his goal which was striking. Most great overhead kicks involve the perpetrator having both feet off the ground, but Balo kept his left foot firmly planted on the turf whilst using his right to bash the ball beyond John O’Shea and Shay Given, scoring one of the goals of the tournament in the process.
Predictably, lamentably, he then decided to mouth off, aiming a few choice words at the Irish fans, though some including completely unbiased BBC commentator Mick McCarthy assumed the worst – that the outburst was directed at Prandelli. As soon as Balotelli pressed self destruct however, Leonardo Bonucci pressed override, clamping his fingers over the striker's mouth before any more expletives could emerge. Never has a Balotelli tantrum been so swiftly and emphatically neutralised. It was a surprise to see one of the younger players in the squad intervene, and not a seasoned veteran, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that should be happening more often.
A poll on the Gazzetta dello Sport's website today shows 37.5 per cent in favour of a Balotelli-Antonio Cassano attack in Kiev, and only 19.8 per cent backing the Cassano-Antonio Di Natale pairing. Tantrum or no tantrum, many are now advocating Balotelli's return to the starting line-up. But doing so they miss the point of exactly why he was so good last night. Because it wasn't just his goal, the boy from Brescia crammed more good things into his 16 minute cameo than the 126 he played against Spain and Croatia. In those games he was earnest, working hard and keeping his temper in check, but he was also clumsy and uncertain, not the Mario we know, not dangerous. Last night his every touch oozed menace, striking fear into the Irish rearguard.
The 21-year-old appears to be, like his former Inter strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who feeds off negative energy, who needs something to rail against, whether it’s being dropped by his Coach or jeered by opposition fans – two factors that were in place in Poznan.
There's another good reason to retain Balotelli as a super sub, the two Antonios – Cassano and Di Natale – actually worked rather well together. The magic midgets compensated for their lack of height and physicality with intelligence and ingenuity, FantAntonio nodding in the opener, Toto almost replicating his outrageous goal against Catania on the last day of the season with an angled effort cleared off the line by Sean St Ledger. Neither of them is where Prandelli would like them to be fitness wise, but that's where Balotelli comes in.