Italy striker Mario Balotelli has declared that the Azzurri will be feared in next year’s World Cup after qualifying for Brazil with a 2-1 win over Czech Republic.
• Highlights: Italy 2-1 Czech Republic (UK, Ireland, Pac Rim)
Balotelli fired Italy into the next year’s finals after Giorgio Chiellini cancelled out Czech Republic’s Libor Kozak’s first-half strike.
And after celebrations died down following the famous victory, match-winner Balotelli’s thoughts immediately turned to Brazil 2014.
"I think we're among the favourites." the 23-year-old told RAI Sport.
"There are one or two teams above us, but they should fear us, not the other way around."
Although Balotelli did not enjoy one of his better nights in front of goal, admitting afterwards that "it has never happened that I missed so many big chances", the biggest shock to the Italy striker came from the terraces.
Rather than being the victim of racist or condescending remarks, which he has become used to each time he has appeared at Juventus in an Inter Milan or AC Milan shirt, he was treated with the same fairness and respect as the rest of the players in Azzurro.
"They were all Juventus fans and I can only compliment and thank them all. They were great and I really didn’t expect it," he said.
Balotelli was also forgiven his mistakes in front of goal by his coach, Cesare Prandelli.
"It happens that attackers miss chances and I just told him to keep calm because he was playing well," said the Italy boss. "We know what quality we’ve got and now we just need to remember that we can also improve.
"I saw a great Italy and we conceded only on the counter-attack, which was what I knew they wanted to do. But we created four great chances in the first half and I told the lads to believe in themselves because we were creating."
Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi agreed that Italy could feature heavily in Brazil, believing manager Cesare Prandelli had built a ‘special’ team.
“This team is special because it started from scratch with a different mentality and group of players, restoring enthusiasm as well as results,” De Rossi told RAI Sport.
“This side also plays good football. Winning is rare, but these are the players who will step forward in a bid to do it again.
“We faced Brazil on a par and played well against Argentina despite missing many players. We reached the Euro 2012 Final and only lost against perhaps the best team ever.
“As we saw in 2006, the strongest team on paper doesn’t always win, as back then France had something more in terms of individuals.
“If you create an excellent group then anything can happen.”
Italy dominated much of the match against the Czech Republic but wasted much of their play in front of goal with Balotelli one of the main problems in the team’s lack of cutting edge.
But despite his woes, the AC Milan striker said he never stopped in his search for a goal.
"Missing that many chances has never happened to me before," he said.
"When (Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr) Cech parried that shot I thought he would get it if I fired low, so I tried to raise the finish and went too high.
"I was unlucky, but I just kept trying until the end."
Meanwhile, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who matched Fabio Cannavaro’s appearance record, thanked his team-mates and Italy’s fans for giving him the chance to appear at another World Cup.
The 35-year-old also dedicated the win to two Sicilian fans who died in a car crash on their way to Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria in Palermo.
“I thank all the lads, as thanks to them I can celebrate 360 degrees tonight,” Buffon told RAI Sport. “We have created so much together over these years and I thank the fans for cheering us on today, as it felt like a new atmosphere to have so much support for the Nazionale. That wasn’t always the case.
“We also dedicate this victory to those two lads who were coming to see us in Sicily and sadly never got there.”