Friday, 29 June 2012

Balotelli stars in coming-of-age drama


 Balotelli fires past Philipp Lahm to kill off Germany's hopes

Isn't it reassuring to know that any team, even one with all the current and historical might of Germany, can have a bogey side?
Joachim Loew's young guns may have been many people's favourites to win Euro 2012, and they went into their semi-final against Italy on the back of a 15-game winning streak in competitive games that stretched back to the last World Cup.
We looked on course for the final everyone was expecting, Europe's two best teams providing a fitting showpiece to what has been a highly enjoyable tournament. A rematch of the final at Euro 2008 and the semi-final in South Africa two years ago that would be the chance either for Spain to complete their historic hat-trick or Germany to gain revenge.
But then Mario Balotelli - a player with little time for the crowbarred narratives and worthy significance the media likes to project on to the results of football matches - scored a brace which sealed a 2-1 win that gave the tournament its defining result and extended Italy's unbeaten run over their cross-Alpine rivals to eight matches.
The 1970 World Cup semi-final saw the Azzurri beat the Mannschaft 4-3 after extra time, with five goals scored in that additional 30 minutes, so no wonder it was dubbed 'Game of the Century'. The 1982 final of the same competition was a storming 3-1 win for the Italians, while another World Cup semi in 2006 saw Germany cruelly beaten in extra time in their own back yard. Last night's performance in Warsaw can sit comfortably alongside those memorable results.
Balotelli has never looked more in the mood than he did at the Stadio Narodowy. So often when he scores he tries a little too hard to show he's not at all bothered, like a sulky teenager desperate not to show any weakness.
But against Germany there was no ambivalent shrug of the shoulders, no cocky folding of arms. Balotelli celebrated his historic two-goal salvo - the first goals ever scored by Italy in a European Championship semi-final - by exploding with emotion for the first and whipping off his shirt to reveal a muscle-bound torso only Jodie Marsh can rival for the second, an emphatic strike from the edge of the box.
It was a celebration every bit as iconic as Marco Tardelli's tears of '82, and even though it happened in only the 36th minute, it seemed to mark no way back for the Germans.
Despite becoming Italy's first ever Premier League winner only last month, Balotelli entered into this tournament as a young player with an army of doubters as big as his cult following. The flashes of brilliance he has showed for Manchester City, and his lone goal for his national team before Euro 2012 kicked off, had many questioning if he would become another of football's long list of unfulfilled talents.
This is a player once described by Jose Mourinho as "unmanageable" during their time together at Inter. The stark dichotomy of his precocious quality and pointless stupidity was encapsulated during a European Under-21s match in 2009 when he opened the scoring against Sweden with a wonderful curling strike, only to then get needlessly sent off for a retaliatory attack on Pontus Wernbloom.
But now, still only 21 years of age, he goes into the final of a European Championship as Italy's joint-highest scorer in the history of the competition and favourite to claim the Golden Boot outright.
At the end of Italy's quarter-final win over England, while the rest of the squad was celebrating Alessandro Diamanti scoring the decisive penalty, Balotelli went over to console his City team-mate Joe Hart. After the final whistle last night, there were emotional scenes as he went up to the crowd and embraced his adoptive mother.
"My mother was in the stadium and my father was watching it on television," said Balotelli after the match.
"I scored two goals in front of my mother and I would like to score four in front of my father in Kiev in the final!
"My favourite moment was when I embraced my mum after the match."
One excellent performance in a big game does not wipe the slate clean of all his past indiscretions, a long list ranging from screwball comedy to outbursts of violence, but last night's destruction of Germany had the feel of a young player ready to take his job seriously.
Despite their win over Portugal by the narrowest of margins in their own semi-final, Spain still go into the final against Italy as favourites to lift the trophy. The experience and quality running through the defending champions completely justifies their pricing at almost 1/2 to claim an unprecedented third-straight major title.
But if Balotelli can prove that his performance against Germany is the mark of newfound maturity, and deliver another top display in tandem with Player of the Tournament-elect Andrea Pirlo, then Italy will feel they have a fighting chance of upsetting the odds once again.
As Italy manager Cesare Prandelli put it after the win over Germany: "Mario is rather unique, he's atypical.
"The career of Mario Balotelli has only just begun."

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