Prandelli must be quicker off the mark to stop Balotelli seeing red

If Cesare Prandelli had engaged his mind and body a little quicker, he may have avoided having to deal with the fall-out from Mario Balotelli’s red card in Italy’s World Cup 2014 qualifier against Czech Republic on Friday evening.

Despite the uninspiring goalless draw, the Group B leaders left Prague with a valuable point to remain on course for automatic qualification. Italy coach Prandelli admitted that he had contemplated replacing his enfant terrible after he received the first yellow for a needless push.

That caution came after 68 minutes, of frustration brought about by a combination of close marking – at times on the edge of legality – and a general malaise that seems to afflict the Azzurri when it comes to June qualifiers.

A further four minutes had ticked by without any real hint of change when the second caution arrived: Balotelli’s stray hand caught Theodore Gabre Selassie in the face and, although the full-back seemed to exaggerate his fall, the referee felt there was enough intent to warrant the second booking. 

So instead of dragging his infantile striker out of the fray, Prandelli was left to watch him storm down the tunnel kicking and punching any inanimate object that got in his way. It was the only moment in the evening when Balotelli felt the need to get stuck in. Perhaps if he had shown some aggression in holding off his markers earlier, he may have ended up making the right kind of headlines.

There is rarely a dull moment when Balotelli is around and, taking on his official Twitter account late into the night, he lambasted his critics for not backing him by encouraging them to “support another country” at the upcoming Confederations Cup.

In the cold light of day, those 140 characters did not look so smart, and soon arrived the familiar refrain of the Twitter rant - a humble climb-down of sorts. An apology to his team-mates for letting them down came first, followed by a rare admission that he still needed to learn how to control his emotions. He was not Superman, he conceded - and there lies the truth.

After last summer’s shining European Championship where he scored twice against Germany in the semi-finals, it seemed as if Balotelli was finally set to become the talismanic figure Prandelli hoped he would be ahead of Brazil 2014.

However, the mercurial star has not been able to win over the nation, thanks in part to the perception that not only is he too arrogant and insolent for his own good, but that he is too eccentric to become a true champion. Italians like their stars to remain humble and grounded at all times.

Although his return to Serie A with AC Milan in January brought with it 12 goals in 13 games by the end of the season, there was only ever begrudging praise from opponents, not to mention the racist abuse from the stands in numerous stadiums. Carrying the weight of expectation with none of the adulation has unsurprisingly proved a heavy burden for the 22-year-old.

He even ran into a spat with Usain Bolt, who had said he “didn’t like” Balotelli “scoring against Manchester United”, although reports only published the first part of the Olympic sprint champion’s statement, which left Mad Mario attempting to defuse a situation which had been none of his making.

There is a belief Balotelli feels he has to do it all by himself both on and off the pitch. When Italy touch down in Rio he will still be the biggest draw but in the build-up to the Confederations Cup there seems to be a support system within the Italy camp.

Gigi Buffon was the first to spring to his defence, claiming the second card had been harsh and promised that the senior players would do all they could to smooth out the rough edges away from the public glare.

How much of that is true or simply spin for the press is open to question. After all, at the Euros last year Daniele De Rossi dealt an on-field reprimand while Leonardo Bonucci felt the need to clamp his hand over Balotelli’s mouth as he raged outwardly following his goal against Ireland.

A Mario meltdown could cost Italy dearly next summer, but even if the World Cup is the swansong for the likes of Buffon, De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo, the experienced contingent are unlikely to offer much in the way of solid backing. Once more it will be left to Prandelli to keep his wild child on the straight and narrow.

The coach believes there are signs of maturity in what promises to be the most important year in Balotelli’s career. But Prandelli must still keep close watch when his charge is about to overstep the line – and move a little faster to stop him seeing red again.