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Jun 28, 2012

Bravo, Balotelli

On a day when Rafael Nadal was toppled by a Czech unknown at Wimbledon, the Germans were similarly stunned in Warsaw by a sparkling Italian team. Yet while the former was a clear upset that no one saw coming, the Azzurri's win was far easier to understand.

The crux of it, looking beyond the obvious history -- Italy has beaten Germany three times in huge World Cup games since 1970, two of which ended with the trophy in Italian hands -- was due to Mario Balotelli. We know Andrea Pirlo's brilliance and composure in possession, which again showed as Italy locked the game down in the second half, but spare plenty of praise for "Super Mario." Paired with his usual Euro batterymate, the kinetic terrier known as Antonio Cassano, the Man City striker tore shreds through Die Mannschaft's robust defense for two wildly different yet equally superb goals.

And in so doing, not only will Italy's 2-1 win serve as a humbling, educational moment for German pair Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber, but should confirm beyond doubt that Balotelli is far greater than the sum of his rakish off-field antics.

His exploits are as legion and indelible as Joey Barton's by this point: red cards, brilliant goals, fireworks in the bathroom and idiosyncratic quotes for the press. A mixed bag of unpredictability that oscillated between pleasing and frustrating fans, teammates and managers alike. Boring and fascinating all in the same moment.

Yet what has defined Balotelli at Euro 2012 is a sustained focus and commitment to the cause. While the world has watched with relish for him to lash out, "pull a Balotelli" and give the masses the joy of writing him off, it has yet to come to pass. His wayward side still manifests at times, but it is now the accompaniment to the main event as opposed to serving as the entire show.

Witness his all-business persona on his semifinal brace. We saw no messing around on Cassano's gentle near-post cross that he powered past Manuel Neuer. Then, tracking Riccardo Montolivo's clever long pass and timing his run to perfection, he showed little of the hesitancy that cost him goals against Spain and England in rifling a top-corner shot past Neuer with Philipp Lahm helplessly nipping at his heels.

Prior to the Euros, many wondered who could be trusted to finish the chances that Claudio Marchisio, Pirlo and Montolivo would invariably create. Yet along with another historically volatile striker in Cassano, Balotelli is answering any and all questions. Now, Italy is just 90 minutes from a European title, assuming it can harass and harangue a Spain side that has appeared to lag and waver with every passing game.

And that's the best thing about a player like Balotelli heading into the final: He lives to harass opponents, not just with his determined on-field persona -- why smile after that sublime second goal when you can pause and pose, stone of face and steely of stare? -- but with his combative, intimidating work rate. Hummels and Badstuber, two physically dominant defenders, were continually on the back foot trying to track his movements and force him off the ball. Badstuber in particular struggled, first allowing an uncontested header for goal No. 1 and then, in concert with Lahm, allowing Balotelli to run unchecked before he smashed in No. 2.

Balotelli has always said that he takes representing the Azzurri seriously, but Cesare Prandelli has managed to hone the many sides of his personality into a focused, menacing front man who belongs in the conversation of best strikers currently in world soccer. Though Jose Mourinho once called him "uncoachable" and current Man City boss Roberto Mancini famously implied he wouldn't last another year at the Etihad, Prandelli is showing that both men are mistaken.

Whether we see such disruptive behavior (we surely will) from Balotelli in the future is immaterial. There will always be a risk to his game that can help or hurt his team. And yes, he's been wasteful and wayward at times during Italy's improbable, heroic march to a Group C rematch with La Roja in Sunday's game.

But what counts at Euro 2012 is that Mario Balotelli made the heavily favored, highly touted Germans look timid, tired and weak. He beat them. He's a game-changer. He's the real deal.

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