On Tuesday afternoon, Mario Balotelli's agent Mino Raiola was asked during an interview with an Italian radio station for his thoughts on the upcoming Euro 2012 semi-final clash with Germany. "Italy will win with a treble from Balotelli," he replied. The forward's representative might have been one goal out, but his faith in his client was proven 100 per cent correct.
The Manchester City striker had netted just once in his previous four outings at Euro 2012, which was a desperately poor return given only Cristiano Ronaldo had had more shots on goal. However, there was a reason why Raiola never lost confidence in Balotelli. There was a reason why Cesare Prandelli stuck by the 21-year-old. There was a reason why Manchester City elected to pay Inter €22 million for his services.
However, there was also a reason why the Nerazzurri were willing to sell. Ever since Balotelli broke into the Lumezzane first team as a 15-year-old, he has seemed destined for greatness. Blessed with an imposing physique, awesome power, terrific technique and great pace, he has been a superstar waiting to happen. However, there has long been a fear that he would not make the most of his God-given talent.
|20'||BALOTELLI!!! What a goal this is. A super passing move has Pirlo picking out Chiellini, who finds Cassano, who sends in a clipped cross towards the Man City bad boy. He is all over Badstuber, and plants a header firmly past Neuer. What a moment.|
| THE CLINCHER
|36'||BALOTELLIIIIIIII!!! WHAT A FINISH! He is taking this semi-final by the scruff of the neck. A ball forward from Chiellini splits the German defence in two, Balotelli latches on to it and, BANG. A rocket into the top corner. Unstoppable.|
Gennaro Gattuso described him as "crazy talented" on the eve of the semi-final and that was the perfect adjective, because Balotelli has always been as crazy as he is talented. He appears to have an appetite for self-destruction and with each mishap and misdemeanour the fear began to grow that he might not make the most of his ability. As Robert De Niro stated in 'A Bronx Tale', "the saddest thing in life is wasted talent" and Balotelli seemed destined to waste his.
However, on Thursday evening in Warsaw, Balotelli finally fully realised his potential. Put quite simply: his performance against a heavily-fancied Germany side was awesome, in the truest sense of the word. His movement was bright and intelligent right from the first whistle. Better still, his attitude was spot on. Barged off the ball by the much-vaunted Mats Hummels early on, Balotelli didn't moan; didn't fret. He simply picked himself up off the floor and redoubled his efforts.
His mature response to that early setback got its just deserts moments later, Antonio Cassano humiliating Hummels before floating over a cross that was begging to be converted. Balotelli obliged, shrugging aside Holger Badstuber before heading the ball past Manuel Neuer.
If that finish was decisive, what was to follow was the essence of emphatic, Balotelli calmly gathering a terrific lofted through-ball from Riccardo Montolivo, then taking a touch before arrowing the most fierce-struck shot into the top-right corner of the German goal. The left arm Neuer threw in the ball's direction nothing more than a token gesture.
Balotelli, of course, did not seem best pleased when he was removed midway through the second half, evidence that he still has some growing up to do. But his desire to remain on the pitch was wholly understandable. He was tormenting Germany's much-vaunted defence - indeed, he drew three fouls in one five-minute spell during the first half. He was enjoying himself and this was the performance of a genuine world-class player.
Of course, the same goes for Italy's other enfant terrible, Antonio Cassano. The AC Milan forward has, of course, really got his act together since arriving at San Siro but he wasted years of his career before then because of poor professionalism.
Cassano turned in a desperately poor showing in the quarter-final clash with England, which cast legitimate doubts over his ability to truly excel on the world stage, but he was an absolute livewire in the first half and Balotelli benefited from the chaos he created down the left wing.
That Cassano is incapable of lasting 90 minutes is a crying shame but only recently recovered from an emergency heart procedure and he should take comfort from the fact that he turned in arguably the finest performance of his career in the biggest game of his career. Just like Balotelli, really. It's taken a long time for the pair to get to this level, but it was well worth the wait.