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Balotelli absence 'may strengthen Italy'

Mario Balotelli's absence from Italy's Confederations Cup semi-final against Spain could make the Azzurri play better as a team, coach Cesare Prandelli said.

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Italy take on the world and European champions in Fortaleza on Thursday in a rematch of the Euro 2012 final, with a place in Sunday's final against hosts Brazil at stake.

Balotelli returned home on Monday after being ruled out of the tournament with a thigh injury. He is the only Italian to score more than one goal at the tournament thus far, but Prandelli hopes that his side can play as a more cohesive unit in the Milan striker's absence.

"From an individual standpoint he adds something big to this squad, so we lose something in terms of quality but maybe it can improve the quality of our play," he told Wednesday's pre-match press conference.

Key to those hopes will be Alberto Gilardino, who Prandelli confirmed will start up front at the Estadio Castelao. World Cup-winner Gilardino, 30, enjoyed a resurgence in form last season, scoring 13 Serie A goals for Bologna.

"He's a reliable player, a generous player, a reference point for the squad and a player who knows how to score goals,'' Prandelli said of the forward he managed at both Parma and Fiorentina. "His numbers prove that. He's not here just because I had him at Parma and I like him.''

Italy are also without full-back Ignazio Abate, while key playmaker Andrea Pirlo remains a doubt with the muscular problem that kept him out of the 4-2 defeat to Brazil in the group stage. However, another midfielder, Riccardo Montolivo, should be fit to face the team which beat Italy 4-0 in Kiev last summer to retain their European crown.

"We're one of the few squads that has put Spain in difficulty," Prandelli said. "And if we play with courage and personality we can hurt them again."

Gianluigi Buffon, Italy's 35-year-old goalkeeper and captain, echoed those sentiments, adding: "The Euro final wasn't a realistic result for who we are and what we represent.

"They're the best team in the world right now but if we play a balanced match to the end we have a chance."

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