His name is Mario. Born in Palermo in August 1990 from Ghanaian parents, he is officially adopted by the Balotelli family at age 2. His height is 1m89, his weight 88kg, his touch & technique already reminiscent of the greats of football history. On Wednesday this week, he officially became the Inter Milan hero when the Nerazzurri knocked Juventus out of the Coppa Italia, thanks to two goals by the young striker and a penalty shot by Cruz. Some might say he is Inter’s response to a certain young Brazilian recently acquired by AC Milan, but Mario Balotelli is unique in his own way and this week, has proven that your name doesn’t have to be Alexandre Pato for everyone to say “A Star is Born in Milan”.
Tactically, aside from the usual “give your backup players a chance to shine” drill, this match had two very important novelties, one on each side. For Juve, it was the very first match for Guglielmo Stendardo (recent loan acquisition from Lazio) who occupied the Bianconeri central defense (now devoid of Jean-Alain Boumsong, on his way to Lyon). For Inter, it was the starting lineup spot of the aforementioned Mario Balotelli, a choice which had matured in Roberto Mancini’s mind due to David Suazo’s non-ideal athletic conditions. Oh also, it was Mauro Camoranesi’s return to action after (yet another!) month-long injury…
Based on the result of the first leg (2-2 at the San Siro, with goals by Cruz (double), Del Piero, and Boumsong), you might have expected the home team to play it safe, keep their defense locked tight and operate on counter-attacks. Not this Juve. Instead, it very much seemed as if Claudio Ranieri instructed his troops to go full steam ahead, gnarl at their opponents, and take one big bite in their carotid artery to wrap up the ticket to the next round. As a result, the spectacle enoyed by the 20,616 spectators of the Stadio Olimpico was majestic, and didn’t take very long at all to get started.
Minute 10: exploiting a very long ball forward by Maniche, Mario Balotelli waited for the ball to bounce, got rid of Birindelli (who, challenged by the striker’s superior physique, slipped), and slammed his shot past Belardi (before Stendardo could close him down). Not the prettiest of goals and certainly not the prettiest of defenses, but 1-0 Inter.
However, just 4 minutes later came the reaction of Juventus: following a foul of Jiménez on Cristiano Zanetti, the Bianconeri obtained a free-kick a few meters away from Inter’s box, and who else to take it but Alessandro Del Piero (in absolutely storming form tonight). On this one, the Juve captain was actually also fortunate, because the wall (Stankovic) deflected his effort and fooled Toldo by sending him the wrong way. 1-1.
With momentum going their way after the equalizer, Juventus continued to push forward and break through their opponents’ defense. Maicon wasn’t being particularly attentive in his covering work, and his right-side was often the playground of choice for Pavel Nedved and his trademark rushes forward. Del Piero in particular, was being absolutely devastating tonight: dribbles, recovered balls, key passes, he was doing everything. His “coast-to-coast” run in minute 56, a sprint of over 50m from one side of the field to the next (before a foul of Pelé finally brought him down) was a delight to witness, and anyone watching the game tonight would really have to be wondering who was the 33 year-old, and who was the youngster in this particular case.
Unsurprisingly, based on what was seen in the first 30 minutes of play, Juve eventually took the lead on the development of yet another set piece. In minute 31 Del Piero delivered the free-kick from the left wing, and found Stendardo’s header inside the box: the effort of the new Bianconeri recruit beat Toldo but not the woodwork, however fortunately for the home team the ball rebounded straight to Vincenzo Iaquinta, who deposited into the empty net with his head. 2-1 Juve.
Inter in all of this? Struggling. Considerably. Especially when it came to the defensive work, the Nerazzurri were leaving way to much space to their rivals, who were being allowed all kinds of real estate on both sides of the field. The only glimpse of Inter’s presence during this time, was a slamming shot of Maniche stamped on the post in minute 20, but not much else.
Fortunately for Mancini however, the Juve defense wasn’t devoid of criticism either. Especially in occasion of Inter’s tying goal: a corner-kick by Dejan Stankovic was followed by an effort of Luis Jimenez, Hasan Salihamidzic got a touch with his hand, penalty. Julio “El Jardinero” Cruz transformed the spot-kick, and it was 2-2 at the break despite the clearer domination of the home team.
At the restart, neither manager decided to make any changes. In the case of Mancini, while the rest of the team wasn’t shining particulary brightly, no one could have blamed the Inter coach for keeping his star youngster onto the field: up until then, Balotelli had been one of the best Nerazzurri players of the night, and his show continued all the way throughout the 2nd half. Two back-to-back technical displays (minute 46, perfect cross for Stankovic, shot wide; minute 48, assist for Cruz, shot parried by the keeper, chance wasted) were just the appetizer to show everyone that the lad meant business.
But first things first. In the previous paragraph, I was saying no one except Super Mario was playing particularly well for Inter. That’s being a bit harsh. No one except Super Mario and Super Toldo. At moments tonight, it was almost as if we were watching the Inter keeper version Euro 2000: absolutely stunning reflexes worthy of the very best Gigi Buffon, in particular in minute 49 when a perfect chance for Nedved from 12 yards out was unbelievably parried away by Toldo. The Inter nº1 would be producing a similar miracle later in the game, on yet another fantastic play combining Trezeguet and Del Piero, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Firstly, it was time for Inter to re-take the lead, this time for good. Remember I said Balotelli was just getting warmed up? In minute 53, came the goal of the night: receiving a low pass inside the box, the young striker controlled the ball with his back to the goal, and (with Legrottaglie watching) tapped the ball to the left with his knee before firing a ground-to-air missile straight into the top corner. 3-2 Inter, and wow. Magical stuff from the kid.
Sadly for Juve, that was the last goal of the night. The Bianconeri now had to score twice to reduce their aggregate deficit, and really gave their hearts out in the final 30 minutes. Unsuccessfully, because as I mentioned earlier there was a certain Francesco Toldo guarding the Inter net which, you’ll excuse the comparison, isn’t exactly the same level of Emanuele Belardi. There was a little bit of space for Mauro Camoranesi in the end, but with the Bianconeri pushing forward the game got progressively nastier: yellows were handed out here and there, and Camo even managed to earn a straight red for a bad tackle on Pelé. Shameful.
Regardless, this was clearly Inter’s night, and in particular the night of a new-found hero amongst the Nerazzurri rank. It must be a real relief for Roberto Mancini, to know that if (for some obscure impossible science-fiction-like reason) Zlatan Ibrahimovic were to stop scoring all these goals for Inter, there’s someone on the bench ready to step in. And shine very very brightly, if only you give him a chance…