Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is enjoying the challenge of coaching Manchester City’s temperamental striker Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012.
There had been doubts before the tournament about whether Balotelli – previously dropped by Prandelli due to his disciplinary record on and off the pitch – would make the final squad and several pundits have questioned whether he is worth the trouble of managing him.
But Balotelli repaid Prandelli’s faith in him on Thursday, scoring both goals for Italy as they beat Germany 2-1 to reach the final of the European Championship.
“I have coached Adriano, (Adrian) Mutu, (Antonio) Cassano and Balotelli,” Prandelli said yesterday. “They are difficult to manage but it’s more fascinating.
“In the end, they are more faithful than those (players) who think they are champions when they aren’t.
“They are players that have quality and make you win.”
Prandelli heaped praise on Balotelli, who turned in his best performance of the competition so far in the semi-final.
Balotelli, playing in his first major tournament, had not impressed in the Azzurri’s group games in Poland and Ukraine although he did score against the Republic of Ireland.
However, he stole the limelight in Warsaw on Thursday.
“He has enormous potential,” Prandelli said. “He has a good (club) coach in (Manchester City manager Roberto) Mancini, who will help him grow.”
Prandelli knows Balotelli will be fired up for tomorrow’s final, Italy’s third in the continental competition and their first since 2000.
“Mario wants to repeat his performance against Germany on Sunday,” Prandelli said. “I replaced him with 20 minutes to go against Germany because I feared he had pulled a muscle.
“Fortunately, it was just a cramp.”
The Italians take on holders Spain, who beat Portugal on penalties on Wednesday to reach the final at the Olympic stadium in Kiev.
The Azzurri held Spain to a 1-1 draw in their tournament opener.
“We are physically and mentally stronger than when we faced them in our opening game,” Prandelli said. “We only have one day to prepare for this game but we will try to find Spain’s weaknesses.
“They are the world and European champions and they are an example to everyone. But we are also there.
“We have grown and we should not fear them. We have to have the strength to face them with ideas and quality.”
Defender Sergio Ramos believes Spain can be proud of their Euro 2012 campaign even if they lose to Italy. Vicente del Bosque’s side are just one game away from becoming the first country to win three consecutive major championships.
It is a milestone Ramos admits the Spanish players are aware of but, even if they come up short in Kiev, he believes they have already made history.
“We are aware of what we are playing for on Sunday,” he said.
“It is something that as of today no team has ever achieved. It requires many years of work and sacrifice. No matter what happens we have already made history.
“This hasn’t finished though and the icing on the cake would be to return and win the Euros.
“Maybe there are some that don’t value it but for the work we have done I think the whole country ought to be proud. Even if we lose we can return with our heads held high.”
Andrea Pirlo has been the key to Italy’s unexpected run to the final as the 33-year-old has produced a number of sublime performances, including in the 1-1 draw against Spain earlier in the tournament, but Ramos is also wary of the Azzurri’s strikeforce.
“Pirlo is one of Italy’s references, he makes the difference and takes control,” he said.
“He is like Xavi in our team but they are two fantastic footballers. Although we also can’t concentrate on one player because Italy create danger with the forwards they have too. The collective is what has got them here.
“We ought to be worried about them but not obsessed. We need to maintain our philosophy of play which is the key to our success.”
Ramos followed Pirlo’s example by successfully chipping his spot-kick down the middle of the goal as Spain squeezed past Portugal 4-2 on penalties in the semi-final.
The confidence shown by the Real Madrid defender is even more remarkable given he missed a crucial penalty in the Champions League semi-final shootout against Bayern Munich.
However, Ramos insists the criticism he received after blazing the ball over that night did not alter his mind when it came to a shootout on Wednesday night.
“The penalty is at the end of the day an anecdote and we shouldn’t concentrate on this but on the progression to the final,” he said.
“Although, with time, yes it will be something I will remember.
“I didn’t do it to prove anything to anyone. It was more personal. When I had to I assumed the responsibility, despite what happened in the Champions League with Real Madrid.
“They had said many things which, as a professional, hurt my pride but I am clear that if anything led me to be a footballer it is my personality.
“These things happen in football. It’s never affected me personally, nor professionally.
“I want to keep growing and taking responsibility.”
Midfielder Cesc Fabregas has highlighted the importance of Andres Iniesta if Spain are to retain their European crown.
“Andres improves in every game. It has been a difficult season for him with injuries but he has arrived at the Euros in an extraordinary moment,” he said.