Born-again Balotelli ready to lead Italy to World Cup tilt

The striker’s return to the peninsula has seen a huge upturn in the fortunes of both the player and AC Milan, and now his country could be set to benefit, too

By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer

At the end of 2012, Mario Balotelli’s young career looked to be stagnating somewhat. With just one league goal to his name, the Manchester City striker’s stock had fallen dramatically since the previous summer, when a Premier League winner’s medal and a stellar Euro 2012 had put him in a position to kick on to the very elite level of the modern game.

Come January, the brash Balotelli effectively signed his Eastlands death warrant by sparking a training ground bust-up with City manager Roberto Mancini. The former Inter boss told the media he would give ‘Super Mario’ “100 more chances”, but the fight would instead initiate the forward’s transfer back to his homeland, and to his boyhood heroes AC Milan.

Since arriving at Milanello in late-January, the Italy marksman has been reinvigorated. With seven goals in his first six games in the red and black, Balotelli has helped to continue a marvellous Rossoneri renaissance which has seen Massimiliano Allegri’s side move to within two points of second place with the run-in approaching.

Milanisti are rightly salivating at the thought of what the former Inter striker can add to their side in the months and years to come, but followers of the Italy national side have reason to be just as excited.

While he may not have been on top form from start to finish in Poland and Ukraine last summer, Balotelli proved with his virtuoso display in the semi-final win over Germany that he has both the ability and the mentality to lead the Azzurri from the front when the chips are down.

Now, with his club set-up looking as settled and as rosy as it ever has, the knock-on effect for Italy could well be a return to glory at next year’s World Cup. The Diavolo’s €22 million purchase could prove to be one of the best things that has happened to the national side in recent times.

Much was said earlier in the season about the emergence of Stephan El Shaarawy for both Milan and Italy, but while ‘Il Faraone’ continues to delight both domestically and internationally, Balotelli is a figure on whom so much more depends. Not only is he a prima puntawho has the attitude necessary to bully even the best defenders the world has to offer, but he also contains that explosive spark that can influence a game and change fortunes at the drop of a hat, even in the biggest and most imposing of surroundings.

And if he can continue to contribute and mature in the familiar surroundings presented to him at Milan, then it can only be good news for national coach Cesare Prandelli. Just as Mario has shown a new level to his passion for football since arriving back at San Siro, so too did his tears after the Euro 2012 final defeat to Spain illustrate how much he longs to succeed in the famous royal blue shirt.

At just 22, he still has so many opportunities to influence the Azzurri, too. Like many of Milan’s current international crop, including 20-year-olds El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio, he has time on his side. Much is said of his ability to court headlines off the field, but right now he looks as comfortable in himself as he ever has, and 12 more successful months in red and black could see him head towards next summer’s finals in Brazil as one of the most influential players available to any side at the World Cup.

Italy, the winners of nine of 19 previous Mondiali clashes against Brazil come face to face in Geneva on Thursday, in a match which needs no extra edge to have fans’ mouths watering. Yet Balotelli’s potential to lead La Nazionale’s new generation to the top of the world will give every Italy game between now and next June an added dimension. Having regained his appetite for football, ‘Super Mario’ could be about to become the biggest Italian super hero of them all.

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