18 years… Super Mario’s wait was a long one, but it was worth it: not even a month after receiving his official Italian citizenship papers, Balotelli has already conquered Italian hearts. His goal vs. Greece’s U-21 team today was magnificent, but alas was not enough for the Azzurrini to get an automatic bye to the next round. Indeed, Italy’s U-21 will have to wat a few more weeks to earn a ticket to the Euro 2009 finals.
(From Gazzetta): Mario Balotelli’s Azzurr(ini) first (including the proud singing of “L’Inno di Mameli” -Italy’s national anthem) coincided with another important novelty in the Azzurrini: a brand new striking partnership up top, namely TurboMario supported by Sebastian Giovinco and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo (Giuseppe Rossi and Robert Acquafresca were injured and unavailable). Much to the contrast of the midfield (Dessena, Cigarini, Marchisio) and defensive (Motta, Bocchetti, Andreolli, Criscito) lines, who had been tested, re-tested, and tested again many times over before. As a result it wasn’t completely a baptism of fire for Pierluigi Casiraghi, although it certainly was for our young Italo-Ghanaian striker.
And speaking of Mario, Balotelli immediately got into the heart of the action very early on: 4 minutes into the game, a good run by Domenico Criscito down the left wing resulted in a good cross to the center, on which Inter’s nº45 applied a confident on-target finish (parried away by the Greek keeper). It was the first glimpse of things to come later on, but alas an isolated glimpse in the Azzurini’s offensive front for much of the first half.
Indeed, the Greek Under-21s had built a fairly solid dam in central midfield, which in turn allowed them to move fairly freely on the sides. The contributing factor was that unlike their Greek opponents, Italy did not establish a firm presence on the wings, in addition to suffering from a severe lack of movement and excess showboating. Casiraghi did his best in trying to reshuffle his cards, constantly asking the 3 forwards to switch positions with one another, but with little results. Greece were defending solidly, and hitting Italy on the counter. In minute 13, the Greeks could have actually capitalized on one of them, but fortunately for the Azzurri Marinos’s shot was wide of the mark.
After eventually managing to get their first shot on target (minute 24, a central effort by Marco Motta easily parried by Kasmeridis), it was finally Mario Balotelli that came to the Azzurrini’s rescue (with some help of the unprepared Greek defense, it must be said). Exploiting an insisted run of Osvaldo on the right wing (and the associated cross), Inter Milan’s forward picked up a poorly headed defensive clearance, waiting for the ball to drop before slamming a powerful right-foot volley into the top corner. Booyah. 1-0 Italy, a score that remained unchanged till the half-time.
Unfortunately in the second half, and much like they had done for large parts of the first, the Azzurrini allowed their opponents to get control of the ball back. Giovinco’s fitness limitations became far too evident (although after a non-stop season like his, Olympics included, that was understandable), and Osvaldo’s selfishness in final third wasn’t helping too much either (on a good number of chances, the Fiorentina striker preferred going for a difficult dribble instead of passing it to a wide-open Balotelli). Eventually Greece’s ball possession paid dividends, when a 54th-minute run by Lazaros Christodoulopoulos (following yet another counter-attack) was finalized by the Greek midfielder with mid-range blast just inside Andrea Consigli’s right post. 1-1.
Casiraghi decided to bring on Morosini and Lanzafame for Cigarini and Osvaldo, but it just wasn’t the Azzurrini’s night. Cruelly lacking ideas, the Italian attacks continually hit against an organized hellenic defense, and even Mario Balotelli’s touches of class (such as his 83rd minute narrowly-wide bicycle kick, after a good Motta cross) could not upset the balance of the game. Italy’s U-21 team remains first in the qualifying group, but will have to wait a little longer before earning their definitive ticket for the Euro 2009 finals.
|GOALSCORERS: 34’ Balotelli (I), 54’ Christodoulopoulos (G).
| ITALY (4-3-2-1): Consigli – Motta, Andreolli, Bocchetti, Criscito – Dessena, Cigarini (68’ Morosini), Marchisio (92’ De Ceglie) – Giovinco, Osvaldo (75’ Lanzafame) – Balotelli. (bench: Sirigu, Ranocchia, Candreva, Paolucci). Coach: Casiraghi.
|GREECE (4-2-3-1): Kasmeridis – Maniatis, Siontis, Tripotseris, Ioannidis – Balafas, Rika – Marinos, Christodoulopoulos (81’ Pavlis), Dimoutsos (74’ Papadopoulos) – Petropoulos (63’ Mitroglou). (bench: Velidis, Oikonomou, Gentzoglou, Iantsis). Coach: Nioplias.|