VALLETTA 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.
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)