Why Italy should not drop Mario Balotelli

Claudio Villa

Cesare Prandelli is looking at alternatives to Mario Balotelli, but there aren't any superior ones.

Mario Balotelli is never too far from controversy, and the notorious striker hit headlines again in the aftermath of AC Milan's defeat at the hands of AS Roma on Friday. In a post-match interview with Sky Italia, in which pundit Giancarlo Marocchi questioned Balotelli's lack of movement off the ball, the striker barbed: "You don't understand anything about football. Trust me, you really don't," before adding a few more choice words and storming away from the rest of the waiting media.

Now, La Gazzetta dello Sport is suggesting that Italian national coach Cesare Prandelli is looking for an alternative to use in attack at the World Cup this summer. Whether the paper believes Balo to have contravened Prandelli's famed ethical code, underperformed on the field, or both is unclear, but when World Cup hopefuls make the trip to the FIGC's training centre in Florence in May, Prandelli will apparently be assessing different options.

Of course, Balotelli shouldn't be immune to criticism, but unfortunately it's largely unwarranted. "You always talk about me. When Milan win Mario's great, when Milan lose it's all Mario's fault. You expect me to score five goals a game," he thundered before his Sky interview came to an abrupt and icy end. The constant trouble which has followed him around -- and, admittedly, that he's occasionally followed of his own accord -- has led to fervour around his every move, on and off the field.

His eccentricity has been exaggerated and mythologised, and is raised every time he underperforms. "The media have not helped the growth of the boy," commented Milan coach Clarence Seedorf. Certainly, he's a player who needs to be handled with care. "He is very tied to his emotions, he has these reactions, but he is a very good person," Prandelli told Gazzetta in January, while also describing him as in need of "a lot of love." But it seems all too easy to forget he's a player of outstanding quality.

Those who are urging Silvio Berlusconi to sell the striker would do well to see that Milan have Balotelli to thank for any dignity they've salvaged in two awful seasons. They'd do well to see Balo's recent "outburst" not as another reason he should be sent packing, but as an example of a frustrated player tired of carrying his mediocre teammates and being single-handedly held responsible for their underperformance.

Since he arrived at the San Siro from Manchester City, Balotelli has scored 26 goals in 40 games. On countless occasions he has bailed Milan out with a moment of individual brilliance, and Milan's late turnaround and Champions League finish last season can be almost wholly attributed to the striker's January arrival. He's an extraordinary player, one to rival the best in the entire division and, as he showed with some wondrous performances at Euro 2012, one to rival the best in the world.

But, importantly, his brilliance isn't always individual. Those criticising his mobility -- or lack thereof -- may be better off looking at the tactics of coach Seedorf than Balotelli himself. The Dutch tactician has used a narrow 4-2-3-1 with a fairly one-dimensional band of passers playing behind the lone striker since taking charge -- admittedly having perhaps been forced through a lack of attacking versatility and injury problems.

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Milan's three attacking midfielders aren't the type to break forward with runs into the box, leaving the onus on Balo to work away up front, often without any support. It means that perhaps the most underestimated aspects of his game, his passing and positioning, are underused, as he's left to stay central high to capitalise on any through-balls or crosses that come into the box. When he doesn't get any service, it's all too easy to suggest he's lazy and should, in the immortal words of Harry Redknapp to Roman Pavlyuchenko, "run around a bit."

Fortunately, Prandelli is the very man who oversaw Balo's brilliance at the last major international tournament a couple of years ago. He's a coach who has understood how to use the Sicilian striker to devastating effect, and will almost certainly attempt to do so in Brazil this summer, regardless of reports suggesting that Parma's Antonio Cassano could be ready to step into the Azzurri fold as a replacement.

Unlike Seedorf, Prandelli won't have a lack of attacking options, and will be able to put together a first 11 with more attacking variation and support for whoever he eventually elects to field up front -- perhaps, as was the case in the group stages of Euro 2012, electing to field two strikers. Unlike the fans and media, he's not blinded by narrative and history, and should recognise that Balotelli is quite comfortably Italy's best striker.

Don't be surprised to see Balotelli's name in the Azzurri starting 11 when they play their World Cup opener against England in Manaus in June. If there's one man who recognises that Mario really is super, it's Prandelli.

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