Balotelli's maturity is clear for Italy squad
European Football Headlines
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By ANDREW DAMPF
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) Mario Balotelli's two goals against Germany could well represent the best solo performance of the European Championship. One more goal in Sunday's final against Spain and he'll finish the tournament as its top scorer.
For a 21-year-old forward previously best known for his temperamental behavior, Euro 2012 has also been a personal breakthrough. And that hasn't gone unnoticed by the rest of Italy's squad, especially after he scored both goals in the 2-1 win over Germany in Thursday's semifinal match.
"Mario has done great," Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said Saturday. "First of all, he's a player with an immense base of quality, which is a great starting point. Secondly he's become part of a group of great champions - and not only in just football terms - and thirdly because he's found a coach like ours, who has found more ways than one to get the best out of him.
"But most of the merit goes to him, because he wanted it and went after it," Buffon added.
Balotelli's improvement has been so rapid that it's been visible from one match to the next.
After opening the tournament with a frustrating night against Spain, and then getting benched after another disappointing performance against Croatia, he came on as a substitute and scored a spectacular bicycle kick in the win over Ireland that concluded the group stage.
In the quarterfinals against England, Balotelli played all 120 minutes and then converted the opening penalty of the shootout win with a perfect spot kick.
Still, those performances were nothing compared to the way he dominated the match against Germany, first by muscling past Holger Badstuber to head in a pinpoint cross from Antonio Cassano with the authority of a veteran. He then followed up by blasting in a shot with such sheer power that no spectator could not have been left in awe.
"He's found an environment where he can measure himself against great champions - champions that have won and who have made big sacrifices to win," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said.
"There comes a time when you have to have the courage to accept advice and responsibility," Prandelli said. "In football terms, we've been clear. After the Croatia match, we asked Mario to do certain things, to play as more of a center forward, and he's doing them with great diligence."
Updated June 30, 2012