Thursday, 4 September 2008

[U21] Balotelli bursts on to Azzurrini scene

Marcello Lippi said he was impressed by "his great personality" and labelled him a "player who will achieve big things in the future". Jose Mourinho called him "a player with enormous potential".

Mario BalotelliIf 18-year-old Inter striker Mario Balotelli can live up to the hype on Friday, it could take Italy into the UEFA European Under-21 Championship play-offs.

A victory against Greece in Castel Di Sangro would confirm Italy as qualifying Group 1 winners, sending the five-time champions into October's play-offs.

The match at the Stadio Teofilo Patini is also an opportunity for Balotelli, born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents but fostered by a Brescia family at the age of two, to finally represent his country of birth – having received his Italian passport on turning 18 last month.

"I have never considered the option of playing for Ghana, not even when they called me two years ago," Balotelli said.

His selection by the Azzurrini will be made more memorable still if the teenager can edge Italy a step closer to next year's final tournament in Sweden.

"I'm available and ready to play," Balotelli said. "If the coach selects me in the starting lineup, I will give my very best for the team. If not, I will support my team-mates from the bench."

After making his professional debut for Lumezzane in Serie C1 aged just 15, Balotelli was signed by Inter in 2006 and scored three goals in eleven Serie A outings last season as the Nerazzurri lifted the Scudetto.

He also managed four goals in as many Coppa Italia games to finish top scorer in that competition.

This term he has already helped Inter avenge their cup final loss to Roma by netting in August's Supercoppa Italia victory against the capital club.

Not only has Pierluigi Casiraghi moved swiftly to reward that form by including Balotelli in his U21 squad, but Lippi has named the youngster in a provisional list of 50 players for the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

"He is a player I know well, whom I have followed since he was in the various youth teams," Casiraghi said. "Mario has great character and has already proved his talent with Inter.

"He still needs to grow and find a precise tactical position on the field, but it will not be a problem. He is young, wants to do well and has great potential."

Group 1 - Standings:
[1] ITA - PLD: 08 - PTS: 22
[2] CRO - PLD: 08 - PTS: 18
[3] GRE - PLD: 08 - PTS: 14
[4] ALB - PLD: 08 - PTS: 11
[5] FAR - PLD: 08 - PTS: 03
[6] AZE - PLD: 08 - PTS: 01

Group 1 - Remaining Fixtures:
Friday 5 September
Croatia v Albania (1800 UK Time, +1hr for Italy/CET)
Italy v Greece (2000)
Saturday 6 September
Azerbaijan v Faroe Islands (1400)
Tuesday 9 September
Croatia v Italy (1800)
Greece v Faroe Islands (1800)
Wednesday 10 September
Albania v Azerbaijan (1600)

Source: UEFA

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