Early Doors

Dangerous Balotelli more than just a myth

Early Doors

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Early Doors doesn't know if you have heard, but there is a little Euro 2012 quarter-final taking place on Sunday.

It's England v Italy, two of Europe's grandest teams (okay, one, despite Roy Hodgson's success in hauling this rather unconvincing team through the group stages) who go head-to-head in Kiev for the right to take on Germany or Greece in the semi-finals.

There are 46 players hoping to play, two coaches awaiting what could be one of the defining moments in their career, but everyone is just focused on one man: Mario Balotelli.

As soon as England defeated Ukraine to ensure their meeting with Italy, fans and hacks alike were already salivating over the prospect of England coming up against a player who, more than any other, has helped to keep the newspaper industry alive in this country. A one-man headline machine, Balotelli has personally offset the impact of the News of the World phone hacking scandal and the reputational damage from the resulting Leveson enquiry.

The questions were manifold: Would Balotelli be making a bizarre order from John Lewis again before the match? Setting off fireworks in the team hotel? Dishing out money to Ukraine's local tramps? Throwing darts at Joe Hart as he alighted from the England team coach?

It doesn't really matter that in an interview with the BBC at the end of the domestic season, Balotelli exposed many stories about him as false - though he did admit ordering a trampoline, two Vespas and a table-tennis set from John Lewis when his mum told him to buy her an iron - it is the myth that endures.

And Balotelli is a mythical figure in England. A football clown for whom rumours that he had dressed as Santa, driving through Manchester city centre handing out money, do not even seem outlandish, even if they are untrue.

Speaking in the build-up to Sunday's quarter-final, Manchester City team-mate Hart attempted to underline that Balotelli is serious about his football, despite the ongoing focus on his rather quirky off the field antics.

"Mario accepts, with the way he is, that sometimes he's going to bring attention to himself," Hart said in Krakow. "But he has broad shoulders and I know whatever is written will not affect him.

"People can keep writing. Even when some things were made up, he wasn't bothered. Things like that just kind of slide off him. [He is] totally unpredictable. That's been proven many times. But unless you know him, you definitely don't know him. He's not really interested in keeping people happy. He's not interested in acting up. He just is what he is."

However, a picture from an Italy training session yesterday that quickly turned viral, in the parlance of today's kids, played up to Balotelli's reputation once more. With all of his team-mates busting out press-ups, the striker was seen to be relaxing on the floor with a smile on his face. Typical Balotelli, they all said, and fair enough. He does appear to have a laidback attitude to such things.

But he is also an incredibly dangerous opponent, as his supremely-executed volley against Ireland demonstrated, and England would be wise to take him seriously, rather than expecting some ker-azy antics. Early Doors spoke to one journalist this week who was absolutely convinced that Balotelli would get sent off on Sunday - there was no question about it.

It seems to be a given that he will indulge in some spectacular moment of self-combustion - try and rip off Wayne Rooney's new carpet of hair perhaps - but what is equally likely is that he will send the country he currently calls home crashing out of the Euros.

As his club manager Roberto Mancini said yesterday, while acknowledging the problem that Balotelli poses to his bosses: "I suggest he plays as he knows and not to be a pain in the a*** with the coach. He has to play, as no one else could give England the same problem."

Balotelli may not even start - Cesare Prandelli went with Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale for the Ireland match - but Gazzetta dello Sport report on Friday morning that he will. If he does, England would do well to prepare to face Balotelli the player, and not Balotelli the myth.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I'd prefer to win the game properly. Play well, be solid, not concede, score and then we don't need to worry about those penalties. But if it happens, I'll definitely put my name forward. I scored one and I'd put my name forward, although if there are five other potentially better than me, I'll be cool with that. And for their penalties, I'd do anything within the rules — anything." - Joe Hart speaks rather confidently about the potential prospect of a penalty shoot-out against Italy. As an Englishman, this seems a touch misplaced.

FOREIGN VIEW: "England have become more like the Italians, thanks to Capello and all the Italian managers in the Premier League. They are defending better and they play on counter-attacks. So we really have to be careful against them. They defend well, are hard to break down and it is very difficult to beat them. We have started to watch them and they are well-organised and coached." - More ahead of England's quarter-final, this time from Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci as he praises Roy Hodgson's own brand of Catenaccio.

COMING UP: At 7.45pm it's the second quarter-final between Germany and Greece in Gdansk, but before the battle of the Eurozone, we have plenty to keep you occupied. Arsene Wenger and Jim White both have new blogs for us and Ray Wilkins, formerly of AC Milan of course, previews England's match with Italy.

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