Pride of Italy: the making of Mario Balotelli

If there is one thing I took from Italy’s humbling of Germany it was to radically change my opinion on Mario Balotelli. And I’m sure I’m not alone on this.

I also learnt betting against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy is a sure fire way to empty the bank balance but that’s another matter.

For it was Balotelli’s sumptuous double that claimed the headlines and dumped Joachim Low’s German team out of Euro 2012.

Perhaps it is the unpredictability of Balotelli’s nature that lulled me into the belief that for all the plaudits the 21-year-old has received in his short career, it was all a bit of a ruse. His record at Manchester City – just shy of a goal every two games – is impressive enough for a striker not always deployed as Roberto Mancini’s first-choice.

Yet, the moments of madness, on-pitch tantrums, off-pitch mischief and red cards have blighted his time in England and critics – including Mancini – have doubted whether he is worth the trouble.

But he is eminently watch-able, a likeable character and a good footballer. How good, I was unsure – until Italy’s improbable run to the final of Euro 2012. This Italian team were meant to improve on the disastrous group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup but were never viewed as genuine tournament contenders – see the 14/1 pre-Euros price as evidence.

But Prandelli – a modern think-tank manager – has assembled an exciting, young squad, likely only to get better over the next few years. And after a three-goal tournament, it is highly probably that Balotelli will be at the heart of it. After fears that he was wasting his talent, Balotelli now looks to have assured his place on the international scene. This has been his breakout moment.

The partnership with Antonio Cassano – another player having a fine Euros – has blossomed. On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be Italy’s Achilles’ heel, but it has been quite the opposite. While the world lauds Andrea Pirlo for his dictatorial displays in midfield, it can be easy to forget that without the movement of those around him, Pirlo’s game would be hindered.

The courage Prandelli has shown to pair Cassano and Balotelli was calculated. The off-the-ball movement of the two terrorised the German defence, leaving one of the best performers in Poland and Ukraine – Mats Hummels – reeling. His partner, Holger Badstuber, fared no better as he was left glued to the ground for Balotelli’s first.

They are the two most intelligent strikers in Italy’s squad and have been given the freedom to be proactive this tournament. There are no restrictions on their movement and no demands on their work-rate – though that has not been under question this summer.

The talents Cassano possesses are not a mystery – though how he has summoned them following such a tough year – remains one. Balotelli however, has often flattered to deceive. A moment of brilliance can be lost in the furore surrounding a reckless tackle, a stamp or a wayward pass. In fact, this was most evident in the game against Spain. Balotelli’s nonchalant flick of his boot on the touchline to control a pass destined for the stands was brilliant. His ponderous finish when in on goal, less so. And he was remembered for that missed chance.

After two goalless games, but performances that suggested an understanding with Cassano was forming, Balotelli was dropped. A switch in formation allowed Prandelli to assess his other options but it was the final flourish in a 2-0 win over Ireland that made headlines. Balotelli’s excellent overhead kick capped Italy’s win and briefly tempted the volatile striker to hit out at his critics – something Leandro Bonucci put a stop to immediately.

That callow moment was one of a couple of incidents that reminded us of Balotelli’s impudence but as Bonucci clasped his hand over the striker’s mouth, it ushered in a new maturity as Italy headed to the knock-out stages.

The build-up to England v Italy contained plenty of Balotelli narrative. He is the only member of the Azzurri squad to play in the Premier League and the talk focussed on his battle with club-mates Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart. Though he didn’t score, Balotelli proved a constant thorn in the side of the English defence, finding space and troubling Lescott and John Terry in equal abundance. Much like his run for the second goal against Germany, he sprung the offside trap, only to be denied by a combination of Hart and Terry.

After two hours of football, Balotelli showed his mettle, stepping up to take the first penalty and coolly stroking it past Hart. His celebration – something so rare – showed the value he placed on the spot-kick. It was another riposte to his critics.

And that has been the true story of Balotelli’s Euros. He has only played 13 times for Italy but lacked the support and acceptance of the press. That was until his double against Germany.

‘Pride of Italy’ adorned the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport’s website with a picture of a topless Balotelli, flexing his muscles and proving another point to pundits too quick to write him off. The same image was met with ‘We beat them black and blue’ on Tuttosport’s front page today – a telling innuendo. Balotelli’s rise has been difficult for some on the peninsula to stomach but for pure footballing reasons – as it should be – he deserves the adulation he receives.

Whether all of this truly represents Balotelli’s breakout remains to be seen, but for the first time, I, like many others, are left wondering just how good he could be. His first test will be in Sunday’s final against Spain. His second, retaining the Premier League. In years to come, this tournament could be referenced as the making of Balotelli.

Unless he gets sent off in Kiev…

Who next for Tottenham?

This article was originally published on Goal.com on June 14.

A new state-of-the-art training ground, plans to move into a 56,000 seater stadium, a squad full of talent, sound financial footing and a board willing to spend to secure regular Champions League status. Managing Tottenham has never looked so enticing.

It seems an age since a summer provided so many Premier League casualties and though most of the vacancies have been filled, possibly the most attractive surfaced on Wednesday night as Harry Redknapp was relieved of his duties at White Hart Lane.

Daniel Levy’s next move will garner more interest than the uncertainty that surrounded the Chelsea or Liverpool jobs as the club look to press on with the encouraging groundwork laid by Redknapp.

The one-time FA Cup winner was a short-term appointment who over-achieved and earned a much longer spell in charge of the club. Yet, he never shared the long-term vision for the club – something that would always count against him.

The club are set to move to a new training base this summer – tipped to be one of the most advanced facilities in Europe – while plans for a new stadium in Tottenham are making steady progress. Simply, while the club was being built around him, Redknapp failed to keep up, leaving the board no choice but to chase a manager prepared to provide the long-term planning the new facilities merit.

The bookmakers early favourite is David Moyes and some have even stopped taking bets on the Scot pitching up at White Hart Lane. Judging by Tottenham’s recent history he seems to fit the profile.

Moyes has shown in his 10 years at Everton that he is capable of squeezing every last drop of potential from a thin squad – consistently keeping the Toffees in the top half of the Premier League.

He has worked admirably under testing financial constraints – with a net spend of just under £20 million in his time at Goodison Park. It isn’t clear what Tottenham’s position is at present. In the last 12 months a substantial profit has been made via the transfer market, but it is unclear whether the short-term replacements merely reflected the precarious position of Redknapp.

Moyes represents a safe pair of hands for Levy. It is unlikely he will carry the gung-ho attitude Redknapp exuded though, and it is possibly a distant dream that Spurs would be deemed title contenders under him, but if his missive is to obtain Champions League football, logic suggests he is the best bet.

Fans were constantly reminded by Redknapp over the years that the football the team played was the best the club had seen. If style is a prerequisite to get the job, critics will point to the reactive, back-foot football of Moyes as a reason to look elsewhere.

Roberto Martinez is bound for greater things than a never-ending relegation struggle at Wigan and his time at the DW Stadium has been admirable. The Spaniard has had his hands tied in the transfer market with a lack of investment, yet has developed a fascinating playing style that confounded adversaries in a run-in that included wins over Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle.

It is unclear whether Martinez is the real deal or just the flavour of the month though. The Spaniard endured a painful start to the campaign but largely avoided criticism (because of the lack of expectation surrounding Wigan), instead lapping up the plaudits when his side narrowly survived relegation – hence the generous praise afforded to him. Redknapp on the other hand, let a very healthy position slip, enduring a difficult second-half to the campaign that ultimately cost him his job.

It is hard to quantify how good Martinez is. He has over-achieved at Wigan – a good sign – but has yet to manage in the Premier League under the weight of serious expectation. Should Levy appoint Martinez, it would be a sizeable gamble and one that carries a shade too much risk if the club are simply chasing top four stability.

If he is looking for a manager capable of building a dynasty – entirely plausible given the heavy links to Brendan Rodgers earlier in the season – then Martinez becomes a very real option.

Another long-term option is Andre Villas-Boas. There is no doubt the Portuguese has talent but Levy will insist on appointing someone with proven Premier League credentials. An unhappy six months at Stamford Bridge hardly screams ‘natural successor’ but Villas-Boas does retain an impressive CV whilst his reputation remains largely intact.

However, the nature of his time at Chelsea should worry potential Premier League suitors. He couldn’t impose the style of play that made him so successful at Porto and was ousted by a core of influential and experienced players. That wouldn’t be an obstacle for a younger, more impressionable Tottenham squad, but it may cast seeds of doubt over the authority he carries on the training ground. In short, he would be a risky appointment.

There are also two out of contract Champions League winning managers who have expressed an interest in managing in the Premier League. Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello both hold hugely impressive CVs and should be considered by Tottenham.

Capello may be the big name manager Tottenham need if they are to retain the services of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. His reputation within the game, despite the England debacle, remains unrivalled. At club level, he is one of the most successful coaches in the game – and certainly the most decorated of the realistic unemployed options.

However, he is the antithesis of Redknapp – a strict autocratic manager who may struggle to gain the affection of the players.

Benitez, though laughed out of the San Siro, following his dire tenure at Inter, should be a realistic candidate. He has remained active outside of the management game, delivering seminars and talks on his footballing beliefs. He is clearly a devoted student of the game and though some may deride the style of play he mustered at Anfield, he would bring the analytical, statistic-driven coaching many feel Redknapp ignored.

Redknapp didn’t so much as build something at Spurs – rather he balanced a decent squad with a few well considered purchases. The squad was strong enough to achieve third but it didn’t and now is the time to hire a man capable of building towards the next level.

Whichever direction the club turn, and it could well be someone not mentioned – Laurent Blanc, Luciano Spalletti, Jurgen Klopp – Daniel Levy cannot afford a protracted interview and hiring process. This summer was already set to be demanding and will be made more so with every passing day.