Italy look to buoyant Balotelli to show way ahead in qualifier

Italy head into Tuesday's World Cup qualifier in Malta buoyed by a stirring comeback in a 2-2 draw with Brazil and the growing belief that Mario Balotelli is finally maturing into a world class international striker. The 22-year-old, who has courted controversy on and off the field, netted a majestic strike in Thursday's friendly in Geneva when his all-round play helped Italy battle back from 2-0 down.

He showed flashes of his brilliance at Euro 2012 with a brace in the semi-final win over Germany, but otherwise flattered to deceive and was nowhere when Spain steamrollered Cesare Prandelli's men in the final.

Such erratic performances had been common for the Azzurri during spells at Inter Milan and Manchester City but now he looks settled and is first choice at boyhood heroes AC Milan. Prandelli hopes such stability will pay dividends. "He has the potential to be among the best five (players) in the world but to do that he needs a lot of continuity, as he is having at the moment," Prandelli told reporters.

Italy top World Cup qualifying Group B with 10 points from four matches, a point above Bulgaria. Malta's woes means Italy should have no trouble sealing victory, especially given the bond developing between Balotelli and Italy and Milan team mate Stephan El Shaarawy.

"I'm happy he's growing up, as a player. We are together practically all the time, I see him a lot more mature," said the 20-year-old. El Shaarawy is likely to operate on the left of main striker Balotelli, just like he does for Milan.

Prandelli's continued snub of Antonio Cassano despite the forward being a linchpin at Euro 2012 means the third component of his three-man attack is a mystery with Emanuele Giaccherini starting in the hole against Brazil. Alessio Cerci then came on for his debut and impressed on the right hand side of the attack and may now start.

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