Head coach Roberto Mancini’s decision to start maverick striker Mario Balotelli backfired as Italy were forced to come from behind to draw 1-1 with Poland in their Nations League opener.
The supremo’s competitive bow saw him turn to his long-term acolyte, despite a glaring lack of action for Nice in the early weeks of the season. There were few surprises in Bologna when the limp 28-year-old failed to ignite a new-look Azzurri during an forgettable hour on the pitch.
It required the help of substitutes Andrea Belotti of Torino and Federico Chiesa of Fiorentina to win the equalising penalty, effortlessly converted by Chelsea midfielder Jorginho. This redemptive goal on Friday was needed to level unmarked Napoli attacking midfielder Piotr Zielinski’s first-half volley for fast-starting Poland – Jorginho lost the ball in the build-up.
Here, we analyse the poor performance of Balotelli.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 1
Shots on target – 0
Touches – 12
Passes – 3
Key passes – 0
Dribbles – 0
Dispossessed – 1
Balotelli’s status as a Mancini’s favourite continued when gifted a start for Italy’s Nations League opener.
This call could only be classed as an error. The undercooked Nice striker barely made a dent on the match and Italy were much improved after his second-half removal.
His only shot from the fixture was woeful and there was no chemistry with Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne and Juventus’ Federico Bernardeschi in Mancini’s 4-3-3 formation.
The only surprise came when a clearly unfit Balotelli wasn’t hooked at half-time.
Racking up the minutes – Positives are in short supply for Balotelli after this. The only one that could be found is the fact that his 62 minutes at Stadio Renato Dall’Ara was only 14 minutes less than he’s managed for Nice throughout 2018/19.
With more minutes, his sharpness should return. This was the script during a belatedly prolific 2017/18.
Where can you begin? – Balotelli may as well have not turned up for this game. His only attempt of the match went nowhere near the goal and his lack of pressing made it an easy start to the match for Poland’s unruffled centre-backs – when he was on the pitch, at least.
His 12 touches was one less than goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. An embarrassing three passes were made during his hour on the park.
37th min CHANCE: Balotelli swivels well on the ball 25-yards from goal, but then wildly blasts over his only chance of the game.
51st min CHANCE: An inviting cross from the left appears bound for Balotelli’s head, only for West Ham goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to snatch the ball in the air.
61st min SUBSTITUTED: A listless night is brought to an early end when Belotti replaces Balotelli. He toys with his hamstring as he walks off, although this could have been a face-saving gesture.
Mancini has consistently entrusted Balotelli throughout their intertwined careers.
For the head coach’s competitive bow, he turned – once again – to the enigmatic striker whom he gifted a Serie A-debut to at Internazionale in 2007, procured for Manchester City in 2010 and brought back from the international wilderness in May.
But if this was an exhibition of what Mancini can expect moving ahead, he needs to explore other options. Too much is at stake for the Azzurri after the shameful failure to make World Cup 2018 under Gian Piero Ventura.
Even Balotelli’s lack of competitive minutes in Ligue 1 could not account for this feckless run-out.
Belotti was more lively during his cameo. Ciro Immobile remained on the substitute’s bench, despite his continued scoring exploits for Lazio.
Something has to give, starting with Monday’s trip to Portugal.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic admitted he was taken by surprise by how well Portugal played as his side was held to a 1-1 draw on Thursday.
Ivan Perisic gave the visitors a first-half lead in the friendly in Faro before former Real Madrid defender Pepe equalised for Portugal, who was missing captain Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, Dalic was pleased by how his team fared against Portugal in what was their first game since the World Cup final.
Watch what the former Al Ain coach said below:
The Real Madrid defender became public enemy number one among many Liverpool supporters after his tussle with Mohamed Salah forced the forward off with a shoulder injury in the Champions League final.
Ramos went on to lift the trophy for a third successive year as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners but found himself accused of setting out to deliberately injure Liverpool’s key man.
Saturday’s match will be the first time the 32-year-old has played in England since May’s final but he is not worried by the potentially fiery reception he may receive.
“I’m not really concerned about that,” Ramos said.
“I never wanted to hurt a colleague on the pitch, of course, so my conscience is really clear about what I did that night. I’m not going to be affected by that at all.
“I know the English fans will treat players as they deserve and I’m not worried about that in the slightest.”
Ramos remains captain of his country despite a dismal World Cup for the 2010 winners.
With former coach Julen Lopetegui axed on the eve of the tournament having agreed to take over at Real Madrid following the finals, Fernando Hierro was placed in charge.
But Spain crashed out on penalties to hosts Russia in the last 16 and will now be looking to build under new manager Luis Enrique.
A former Barcelona boss, there was plenty of speculation that Enrique’s appointment would spell the end of Ramos’ international involvement.
But the pair insist there is no bad blood between them as they work together for the first time, with Ramos keen to move Spain forward.
“I think that is something the press said,” he said. “Maybe both of us have very strong characters but we share the same objectives and that is the national team.
“I have been here for many years but still feel very young and eager and want to continue winning with the national team, it is all good for the moment.”
Enrique, too, gave a glowing report on the man he has decided will continue with the captain’s armband under his tenure.
“He is captain as the most capped player,” Enrique said on the eve of his first game in charge of Spain.
“He has great personality and presence. He is a great leader on and off the pitch. I hope he is with us a long time, for many years, pushing his team-mates to victory.”
With European Championship wins in 2008 and 2012 sandwiching their World Cup success, Spain set the benchmark for some years – but Enrique admits they must hone their craft to return to the summit.
“Of course we try to do different things,” he added. “Spain has been a reference in world football for 10 years. We try to evolve our model. Then we see if we are efficient enough. The aim is to evolve.”