Euro 2012: All eyes on Mario Balotelli as City star takes centre stage

It’s time for Mario Balotelli to get serious. The eccentric Manchester City forward is about to make his first start for Italy in a major tournament and the expectations couldn’t be higher.

No other player in Italy’s team has the combination of talent and physical prowess that the 21-year-old Balotelli possesses, and that could be just what the Azzurri need in their European Championship opener against Spain in Gdansk this evening.

“There’s nothing to discuss about Mario in terms of football, because he’s a pure talent – one of the few players who can make you win matches,” Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said yesterday.

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But Balotelli has struggled to harness his explosive behaviour, both on and off the pitch.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli left Balotelli out of the squad for a friendly against the United States in February after he received a four-match suspension a month earlier for his stamp on Tottenham’s Scott Parker.

With Prandelli’s urging, Balotelli issued a public apology in April for another act of indiscipline with City, having picked up his fourth red card in two seasons, for lunging at Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna’s knee.

And earlier this season, Balotelli had to come up with an explanation for English authorities after a fire broke out in his house when fireworks were let off in his bathroom.

“Off the pitch, he’s always behaved well with us,” Buffon said. “But when you’re [21] years old, it’s OK to have some growing pains, it’s OK to make some mistakes.”

Prandelli was also complimentary of Balotelli’s behavior since arriving in Poland, but he’s demanding improved teamwork from the striker.

“All kids in their twenties want to show what their worth and capable of, but this week Mario has behaved just as well as every-one else,” Prandelli said. “He’s shown tremendous growth, and [teamwork] could be the key to success for him.”