Preview: Balotelli blast has Italy dreaming in Malta

VALLETTA Sun Mar 24, 2013 8:10pm IST

Italy's Mario Balotelli gestures during their international friendly soccer match against Brazil at the Stade de Geneve in Geneva March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Italy's Mario Balotelli gestures during their international friendly soccer match against Brazil at the Stade de Geneve in Geneva March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Italy head into Tuesday's World Cup qualifier in Malta buoyed by a stirring comeback in a 2-2 draw with Brazil and the growing belief that Mario Balotelli is finally maturing into a world class international striker.

The 22-year-old, who has courted controversy on and off the field, netted a majestic strike in Thursday's friendly in Geneva when his all-round play helped Italy battle back from 2-0 down.

He showed flashes of his brilliance at Euro 2012 with a brace in the semi-final win over Germany, but otherwise flattered to deceive and was nowhere when Spain steamrollered Cesare Prandelli's men in the final.

Such erratic performances had been common for the Azzurri during unpredictable spells at Inter Milan and Manchester City but now he looks settled and is first choice at boyhood heroes AC Milan. Prandelli hopes such stability will pay dividends.

"He has the potential to be among the best five (players) in the world but to do that he needs a lot of continuity, as he is having at the moment," Prandelli told reporters.

Italy top World Cup qualifying Group B with 10 points from four matches, a point above Bulgaria who battered Malta 6-0 at home on Friday to leave the island nation bottom on no points.

Malta's woes means Italy should have no trouble sealing victory, especially given the bond developing between Balotelli and Italy and Milan team mate Stephan El Shaarawy.

"I'm happy he's growing up, as a player and as a man. We are together practically all the time, I see him a lot more mature," said the 20-year-old with Egyptian heritage and a mohican.


El Shaarawy is likely to operate on the left of main striker Balotelli, just like he does for Milan.

Prandelli's continued snub of Antonio Cassano despite the mercurial forward being a linchpin at Euro 2012 means the third component of his preferred three-man attack is a mystery with Emanuele Giaccherini starting in the hole against Brazil.

Alessio Cerci then came on for his debut and impressed on the right hand side of the attack and may now start.

Whoever plays, Prandelli is being ultra-cautious.

"We'll meet a more united, compact and organised team than Brazil even if they are not as technically strong. They have trained for months together like a club side," he said.

Malta hope the prospect of facing the Azzurri in front of a sell-out crowd at the National Stadium will spur the players on.

"This will be a very difficult game for us but if we are fully focused and keep our tactical discipline, I believe we can gain a creditable result," captain Michael Mifsud, 31, said.

Forward Mifsud, the most capped player in the squad with 96 appearances, should retain his place but coach Pietro Ghedin, who held various posts with the Italian Football Federation before returning as Malta coach last year, could make changes.

Midfielders Gareth Sciberras, who missed the Bulgaria game with a minor groin injury, and Andrew Cohen are set to come in.

Malta gave a good account of themselves when they lost only 2-0 to Italy in Modena last September.

Probable teams:

Malta: Andrew Hogg; Andrei Agius, Luke Dimech, Jonathan Caruana, Clayton Failla; Gareth Sciberras, Roderick Briffa, Edward Herrera, Andrew Cohen, Andre Schembri; Michael Mifsud

Italy: Gianluigi Buffon; Christian Maggio, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Mattia De Sciglio; Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo; Alessio Cerci, Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Sharaawy

Referee: Serdar Gozubuyuk (Netherlands) (Writing by Mark Meadows, editing by Justin Palmer)

Australian Open

Novak Djokovic (L) of Serbia watches as Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland walks off the court after their men's singles semi-final match at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Djokovic beats Wawrinka, to face Murray

Novak Djokovic once again stood tall at the Australian Open as he reached his fourth final in the past five years with another five-set victory over Stan Wawrinka, the man who dumped him out of Melbourne Park last year.  Full Article 

Reuters Showcase

GDP Growth

GDP Growth

India's economic growth revised up by almost 50 pct.  Full Article 

Stake Sale

Stake Sale

Strong demand for Coal India boosts privatisation drive.  Full Article 

SpiceJet Bailout

SpiceJet Bailout

SpiceJet board approves up to $243 mln share sale plan  Full Article 

India Art Fair

India Art Fair

Art fair turns India's capital into art hub.  Full Article 

Child Trafficking

Child Trafficking

Police find hundreds of child slaves making bangles - media   Full Article 

Movie Review

Movie Review

"Rahasya" is an ode to Agatha Christie.  Full Article 

England Beat India

England Beat India

England reach final after Taylor-made victory.  Full Article 

Change Of Heart

Change Of Heart

Justin Bieber says dropping 'arrogant' and 'conceited' attitude  Full Article 

Reuters India Mobile

Reuters India Mobile

Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device  Full Coverage