FORTALEZA, Brazil: Having seen Confederations Cup semi-final opponents Spain neatly dismantle Nigeria in their final group game on Sunday, the last thing Italy needed was an injury to increasingly influential striker Mario Balotelli.
The 22-year-old has been ruled out of Thursday’s last-four tie in Fortaleza due to a torn thigh muscle, and his absence only serves to emphasise his growing importance to Cesare Prandelli’s side.
It would have been unthinkable a little over a year ago, but the controversy-prone AC Milan striker is now the player around whom Italy’s whole attacking strategy revolves.
Prior to last year’s European Championship, Balotelli had only scored one international goal in 10 appearances, but his performances in Poland and Ukraine suggested he was ready to take on a more prominent role.
There were bumps in the road, and he was dropped to the bench for the final group game against the Republic of Ireland, but his two goals in the 2-1 semi-final win over Germany — the second an unforgettable thunderbolt — felt like a coming of age.
Although he failed to make a mark in the final as Italy were crushed by Spain, he finished joint-top scorer with three goals and was named in UEFA’s 23-man Team of the Tournament.
His form then dipped alarmingly at Manchester City, accelerating his divorce from exasperated coach Roberto Mancini, but since returning to Italy with Milan in January, he has been a revelation.
His 12 goals in 13 games spearheaded the Rossoneri’s successful push for a Champions League place, while his friendship with fellow young forwards Stephan El Shaarawy and M’Baye Niang hinted at a revival for a club traumatised by the departures of several senior players in 2012.
Balotelli scored a stunning 25-yard equaliser in a 2-2 friendly draw with Brazil in March and despite a red card in a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic earlier this month, the upward trend in his performances continued at the Confederations Cup.
He scored the winning goal in Italy’s 2-1 success over Mexico, converted a trademark penalty in the 4-3 defeat of Japan, and teed up Emmanuele Giaccherini in the 4-2 loss to Brazil with an audacious back-heeled volley.
Prior to the tournament, Prandelli settled on a 4-3-2-1 formation in which everything was channelled towards Balotelli.
Despite expressing disappointment at the booking that Balotelli incurred for tearing off his shirt after scoring against Mexico, Prandelli admitted that he has become a pivotal player for his country.
“It is difficult to talk about Mario,” said the Italy coach.
“He is unpredictable, but he is very motivated when he dons the blue shirt. We have said for years he has potential.”
Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Prandelli could opt to field a 3-5-2 formation against Spain, with Alberto Gilardino coming into the attack in Balotelli’s place.
El Shaarawy, eclipsed by Balotelli at San Siro in the latter half of the campaign, will compete with Juventus’ Sebastian Giovinco, who scored the winner against Japan, for the right to partner the Bologna man.
Prandelli also has fitness concerns over midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo, but against all expectations, Balotelli has now become every bit as indispensable.