Euro 2012: When Mario Balotelli's career peaked

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Balotelli goal

We weren’t to know it, but Euro 2012 represented the peak of Mario Balotelli’s career.

The troubled striker is now 30 years of age and playing for Serie B side Monza, having spent an entire decade flittering around various clubs in Europe, to varying degrees of success.

For every decent spell at Manchester City, Nice and Milan, there were horrendous stints at Liverpool, Brescia and Marseille; for every memorable goal, there were a million other incidents where Balotelli caused chaos.

As the 2010s passed by, Balotelli went from being viewed as a rough diamond who just needed the ‘right coach’, to a player thoroughly out of options. His line of credit has all but run out within top tier football.

A career wasted.

And given how the bad fairly outweighs the good with him, it’s understandable to forget that there was immense talent in Balotelli. A striker with pace, power, skill and the technical ability to score just about any kind of goal. There was a reason why clubs kept giving him opportunities.

2012 was the year Balotelli produced his most consistent body of work, both at club and international level. He’d played his part in Man City’s first league title success under Roberto Mancini, the man who’d given Balotelli his first start when the pair were together at Inter.

Balotelli Mancini

Balotelli scored 13 league goals in just 23 games during that 2011/12 campaign, a phenomenal record by anyone’s standards. On that remarkable final day of the season against QPR, he’d come off the bench to great effect; setting up Sergio Aguero for his iconic last-minute winner that sealed the title.

Balotelli had been excluded from Marcello Lippi’s disastrous second run as Italy manager, which ended in a group-stage exit at the 2010 World Cup. Lippi had relied heavily on the set of ageing stars that delivered the ultimate prize in international football four years previously in Germany.

New coach Cesare Prandelli had awarded Balotelli his first call up to the Italy squad in August 2010 against the Ivory Coast, and the striker was viewed as a welcome addition, new blood in a squad desperately needing it. His first goal for Italy arrived a year later, in a 2-0 win against Poland.

Prandelli wanted to build his Italy side around Balotelli and fellow once-golden-boy-turned-bad Antonio Cassano. Cassano had had a decent season at Milan, but suffered from a heart attack in the winter of 2011 following an away game against Roma. Cassano was forced to rest and missed a large portion of the season, coming back for the last six weeks.

Italy had finished second in Group C at Euro 2012, behind eventual winners Spain. Balotelli had been poor in the opening two games of the tournament, against Spain and Croatia, and had been taken off for Toto Di Natale in both games.

There was mounting pressure on Prandelli from the Italian media to hand Di Natale a start in their last game in the group against Republic of Ireland, and he complied. Balotelli replaced Di Natale late in the second half and scored his first goal of the tournament, with a stunning standing overhead kick from an Alessandro Diamanti corner in the 90th minute. Gli Azzurri were through to the quarter-finals against England.

Balotelli Ireland

Balotelli was reinstated to the starting XI for the game against England and produced a performance that highlighted the very best of what he could offer, doing everything except score. The game – somehow – went to penalties. Balotelli, who scant missed penalties throughout his career, struck first for Italy. Pirlo’s outrageous Panenka swung the balance of power in Italy’s favour after Riccardo Montolivo had missed. Ashley Cole and Ashley Young missed for England, and Italy progressed to another semi-final clash with Germany.

Games between these nations – the two most successful European sides in the history of the game – are always tense affairs, yet full of drama and most are considered classics. The 1970 World Cup semi-final ended 4-3 to Italy after extra time in what has been labelled as the ‘game of the century’; the 2006 semi-final in Dortmund became an instant World Cup classic, with Italy again coming out on top. In fact, Germany had never beaten Italy at a major tournament.

Italy and Balotelli struck first. Cassano, surrounded by Jerome Boateng and Matt Hummels, managed to swivel past both of them in a confined space down the left-hand channel. Cassano crossed the ball first time with his left foot, and Balotelli read the situation quicker than Germany’s Holger Badstuber, nipping in ahead of the defender to plant a header past Manuel Neuer.

Whilst Balotelli’s first demonstrated a goal-scorers instinct for goal, his second was simply about raw power.

Montolivo found himself in possession of the ball deep in Italy territory. The midfielder looked up, spotted Balotelli running in behind Germany’s Phillip Lahm and launched a long-distance pass into the path of the striker.

Balotelli took one touch with his left foot to move the ball along, and just as Lahm was catching up to the No.9 on the edge of the box, he smashed – in every sense of the word – the ball into the roof of Neuer’s net with such ferocity that a goal-filled with Neuers couldn’t have saved the ball.

Balotelli meme

His celebration became one of the most memorable in the recent history of the competition; off came the shirt to showcase the chiselled physique and with that steely, thousand-yard stare to no one in particular. This was the very best of Mario Balotelli.

Italy, again, beat Germany, and advanced to the final, where they were dismantled by a glorious Spain side.

Balotelli’s three goals and overall performances meant he was selected in the Euro 2012 team of the tournament.

But as with the general pattern of his career, the good times didn’t last. The relationship between he and Prandelli disintegrated two years later at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where Italy failed to make it out of the group stages. Balotelli was accused by the coach of lacking ‘maturity’, and the striker didn’t take kindly to Prandelli criticising him publically. “I think real men, if they have something to say to each other, they say it to their faces. I am a direct person,” said Balotelli in the aftermath of the early exit.

Prandelli resigned following the failure in Brazil, and Balotelli has hardly played for Italy since, only registering a further three caps. His last appearance came in September 2018.

Euro 2012 looked like it was the beginning of Balotelli’s ascent to greatness. In fact, it was the apex.

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