x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Confederations Cup: Mario Balotelli has been a boost as Italy take on Brazil

Prandelli is getting the best out of his maverick striker as the Italian 'group' stokes up passion, writes Gary Meenaghan.

The temperamental Mario Balotelli, left, has settled down nicely with his Italian teammates during the tournament. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo
The temperamental Mario Balotelli, left, has settled down nicely with his Italian teammates during the tournament. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo

The Confederations Cup is billed as the tournament of champions: the winners of each continental competition and the holders of the World Cup crown.

The match between Brazil and Italy tonight features neither continental champions nor World Cup winners and yet offers arguably the most enticing clash yet.

Brazil, having qualified as the host nation, face Italy, whose invite arrived by way of them losing to Spain in the final of the European Championships.

Spain had already secured their place through their success at the World Cup.

The match promises to provide the biggest indicator of Brazil's improvement under their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Both teams have won their two group games so far, against Japan and Mexico, but tonight is crucial in that the winners will likely avoid Spain in the semi-finals.

The Italians will be without Andrea Pirlo, who picked up a calf injury in their entertaining 4-3 victory over Japan, but Mario Balotelli in attack is proving a constant threat as Italy's coach Cesare Prandelli continues to extract the maximum from the erratic striker.

Hernanes, the only Brazilian player to play his domestic football in Italy, has warned his teammates that they must not lose focus by concentrating only on the AC Milan striker.

"It will be a great match because everyone knows the strength and power of Italy and players such as Balotelli," the Lazio midfielder told The National.

"We will have to be careful with him, but not only him because the team is very good. We must keep our focus and concentrate fully if we want to win."

Prandelli conceded earlier in the week that he has no secret for getting the best out of his forward, but whatever he is doing is working.

Balotelli was the stand-out performer for the Italians at last summer's European Championships and has since scored five goals in five matches for his country.

In typical Balotelli fashion, in the only game he failed to fire - against the Czech Republic - he was also sent off. "Talking about Mario is always difficult because you never know what he might do from one moment to the next," Prandelli said of the 22-year-old former Manchester City striker, who is susceptible to fireworks both on and off the field.

"I think he is strongly motivated to wear the blue Azzurri shirt and he has found a group of players who want to play and win.

"They give soul to the team. All these things give Mario potential to grow up, but he has to give his own contribution also."

The atmosphere that greets him in Salvador should also pose an interesting insight. The north-east city is widely seen as the heartland of the country's Afro-Brazilian culture, and while Balotelli, whose birth parents are Ghanaian, was met with jeers in Italy's first group match, against Mexico, tonight he could prove a more popular figure.

Brazil, too, are benefiting from increased support in the passionate Nordeste.

Their opening match in central Brasilia was played out for parts amid anxious hush, but the vocal encouragement of the crowd that greeted the team in Fortaleza was phenomenal. "It was an incredible thing," Hernanes said. "I'm living in Italy and had forgotten this feeling of the fans with the national team.

"Now I can realise the passion of them again and these things touch me a lot.

"When the anthem was playing and everyone was singing there was great emotion and when we feel that with us it is a great power and strengthens us."

David Luiz added it is a privilege for him to play in front of such support. "I miss Brazil a lot," he said.

"I left when I was 18 and now I have a great chance to come here and play. It's very special."

Luiz, alongside Thiago Silva in the heart of the Brazilian defence, have yet to concede a goal this tournament. The Chelsea centre-back, however, deflected praise, adding if they are to stop Balotelli and co, they must retain such form.

"All the team has done well, so far, but the first line of defence is Fred, Neymar, Hulk and Oscar," he added, referring to attacking players.

"All the team are doing a great job and now we need to continue that."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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