Mario is key to Italy's success
THE form of Italy's unpredictable Mario Balotelli, who struck a superb late goal in the 2-0 win over Ireland, will be a major factor in efforts to get past the quarterfinals at Euro 2012.
Cesare Prandelli's men reached the last eight as Group C runners-up, thanks to goals by forwards Antonio Cassano and Balotelli. The only negative event was the thigh injury to Giorgio Chiellini, which could sideline the centre back.
Temperamental Balotelli was left out for Antonio di Natale in Poznan, but came off the bench to wrap up the points in the 90th minute with a superb hooked finish from a corner.
He celebrated in typically moody style and the way he reacts in future to having scored his first goal of the tournament, and only his second in 11 Italy games, is the great unknown.
Finding the net could inspire Balotelli or conspire to make him even less likely to pass to team- mates.
"What he said (when he scored), he said in English and I didn't understand," said defender Leonardo Bonucci, who replaced the injured Chiellini.
"So I put my hand in front of his mouth just in case, because Mario is instinctive but that is also his strength."
Whether Balotelli was remarking on the English-speaking Irish making life difficult for him, even though they had already been eliminated, or saying something more colourful, we will never know as the Manchester City front man rarely speaks publicly.
If he can do his talking on the pitch, having eased the weight on his shoulders by scoring, Italy's quarterfinal opponents in Kiev on Sunday will hope he is not in one of his destructively brilliant, rather than just destructive, moods.
Prandelli said Balotelli had to recognise that "you're not playing on your own, there's a whole team around you who can help" and the group mentality among the Azzurri was clearly visible at full time.
They were overjoyed when they heard Vicente del Bosque's Spain had beaten Croatia 1-0 in the other match, where a 2-2 draw would have sent Italy out and caused Italian media to become obsessed with fears of a possible fix which they call a "biscuit".
Gazzetta dello Sport said "Thank you Del Bosque" on its front page and Italy's captain, Gianluigi Buffon, agreed.
"In the last few days I have remained calm because I was convinced Spain, who we owe a big thanks, would behave like a great team," said the goalkeeper, who missed two games in Italy's group-stage exit at the 2010 World Cup as holders.
"We are staying here until June 24, which was the minimum objective that we set ourselves at the outset." - Reuters