Italian eyes could be fixed firmly on striker Mario Balotelli today when World Cup heavyweights Italy and Germany clash in Milan, for what should be a mouthwatering friendly at the San Siro.
Amid a troublesome season for his club AC Milan, Balotelli has been out of sorts since returning from injury and a three-match ban several weeks ago.
To the often obsessive Italian sports media, Balotelli has come to typify Milan’s malaise, but Italy coach Cesare Prandelli suggested he is hoping for the chance to see headlines referring once more to “Super Mario.”
“As for Mario, he’s going through a tough period at the moment, but if he has character, he will emerge stronger,” Prandelli said.
Recent reports citing Balotelli’s agent Mino Raiola said persistent media intrusion could force an eventual move away from Italy and that frustration seems to have spilled over on to the pitch.
Following a jaded performance away to Parma nearly three weeks ago, Balotelli was substituted early in the second half as the hosts stunned the Rossoneri 3-2 at the death.
A week later, Balotelli picked up a yellow card in a 2-0 home defeat to ACF Fiorentina, meaning he missed last weekend’s scoreless draw away to basement side AC Chievo Verona.
Despite his lack of match fitness, Balotelli — arguably Italy’s most influential player in the World Cup qualifiers — is expected to feature in Prandelli’s starting lineup today, but alongside whom remains to be seen.
In-form Fiorentina striker Giuseppe Rossi, the league’s top scorer with 11 goals from 12 outings, has been ruled out due to sickness after Prandelli said he wanted to test a Rossi-Balotelli partnership.
Prandelli may now pair Southampton striker Dani Osvaldo with Balotelli in a 4-4-2 formation in which Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan) and Andrea Pirlo (Juventus) would provide service to the strikers, and wingers Claudio Marchisio (Juventus) and Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain).
As AC Milan captain, Montolivo said on Wednesday he has faith in the 23-year-old Balotelli.
“He’s played for many years now, he has thick skin, and he knows there are ups and downs, and that you can go from receiving great praise to terrible criticism,” Montolivo said. “It’s all part of a player’s career and I don’t think he’s either stressed or worried.”
Balotelli has played a pivotal role for Italy of late, winning and then scoring the penalty which secured a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic and Italy’s ticket to Brazil.
Although missing the penultimate qualifier against Denmark (2-2), Balotelli saved Italy’s blushes with a late equalizer in a 2-2 draw at home to Armenia, a draw which nonetheless cost Italy a top seeding for the draw.
Against Germany, who sit second in FIFA’s rankings just behind reigning World Cup champions Spain, Prandelli will be hoping for Balotelli to shine again — although depending on what his ambitions are, the coach could test any number of players at his disposal.
In what will be coach Joachim Loew’s 100th game in charge of Germany, the visitors will be without SS Lazio striker Miroslav Klose and Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker, both injured.
Italy travel to London at the weekend for Monday’s second friendly, against Nigeria, at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.