Euro 2012: Mario Balotelli may be odd man out in favor of Antonio Di Natale when Italy faces Croatia
Mario Balotelli’s poor performance in Italy’s 1-1 draw with Spain may have sealed his fate in Euro 2012. The Manchester City striker was by far the low point for the Azzurra, who broke the game open against the defending champs once Balotelli was replaced by Antonio Di Natale. Not only was Di Natale up to the task, he also scored Italy’s lone goal, which has many clamoring for Prandelli to start him up top in place of Balotelli when Italy takes on Croatia this Thursday.
PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Mario Balotelli, right, has serious competition in fellow striker Antonio Di Natale.
Italian national team coach Cesare Prandelli and his millions of advisors, most of whom like to conduct their business in ports bars, are busy debating the Azzurri's line-up for Thursday's crucial group C match against Croatia.
By winning the game in the Polish town of Poznan, Croatia would be certain of a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, with six points from two games.
Italy, on the other hand, desperately need a win after their 1-1 draw against Spain on Sunday.
Prandelli's biggest dilemma is upfront, where he has to choose between the reliability of veteran Antonio Di Natale, and the unpredictable talent of young star Mario Balotelli.
Di Natale, a 34-year-old from Udinese, displayed brilliant form as he put Italy ahead against Spain shortly after coming on for Balotelli, who had just squandered a glaring chance in front of goal.
The Manchester City striker, who turns 22 on August 12, was the least convincing player during the Azzurri's brisk game against the continental and world champions, leaving Prandelli with serious doubts about whether to give him a second chance.
It is not just age that separates the two. One is an unruly, global star with a blonde crest on a hairless scalp. The other is well-behaved, neat-haired and about 20 centimetres shorter.
"What I ask of (Balotelli) is to be very simple in playing situations," Prandelli said, "without wanting to change the game every time he gets the ball. Instead he must help the team, mostly by pressing forward."
As room for improvement abounds for "Balo," it is nearly impossible to find flaws about "Toto," as Antonio is often shortened in his native Naples.
Prandelli provided a convincing explanation as to why he had never used him in the qualification campaign, despite tallies of 29, 28 and 23 goals in his last three Serie A seasons.
"It is so easy to place him on the pitch that you do not need many trial games," Prandelli said. "He always plays into the opponents' defence and attacks as few in Italy can do. He is probably the best overall."
In a recent online poll by daily La Repubblica, 40 per cent of readers said they wanted Di Natale to play in Italy's next game. Balotelli, by contrast, was backed by 20 per cent of readers, while about as many would like the two to play together.
Prandelli has not ruled out the latter possibility, although Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Cassano are also available.
Cassano started alongside Balotelli in the opening game against Spain. Asked who he preferred to play with, he later said: "Do you think I am going to tell you? The important thing is that I play."
That possibility, however, has become less of a certainty, after Cassano infuriated his coach by violating the team's code of conduct by using a vulgar term to describe homosexuals.
Apart from the issue of who to field in attack, Prandelli could also make major changes in defence, where Andrea Barzagli of Juventus is recovering from an injury.
Roma's Daniele De Rossi did not disappoint as a makeshift central defender against Spain. But given his good form, he would be even more useful in his usual midfield position.
Prandelli could then consider a return to a four-man defence, fielding Federico Balzaretti and moving back Christian Maggio. Antonio Nocerino could then replace Thiago Motta in midfield.
"Croatia are fast, powerful and unpredictable," said Prandelli, who must also be aware of the Croats' impressive record against the Azzurri.
Since obtaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia beat Italy three times and drew twice.