Balotelli absence adds to Italy challenge
© Getty Images

As if the challenge of facing Spain, the reigning world and European champions, was not sizeable enough, Italy must now take to the field on Thursday in Fortaleza without their most in-form striker – Mario Balotelli – who has been ruled out of the rest of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 with a left-leg injury.  

The 22-year-old front-man’s importance to the Squadra Azzurra is no secret, with the AC Milan player grabbing five goals for his country in the last six months, including two at Brazil 2013. Even Spain boss Vicente del Bosque had words of praise for the former Manchester City maverick, saying that “he’s a powerful and technical player, who’s very important to them”.

Experience and efficiency
So, given Balotelli’s absence against La Roja, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli must now find a way to satisfactorily fill the gap in what could be his side’s most testing encounter this year. Prandelli has indicated that the first in line to step in is Alberto Gilardino, with the 31-year-old a proven performer at this level.

A member of the Italy squad that lifted the title at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, the well-travelled front-runner scored 13 goals in 34 Serie A games for Bologna this season. To get an insider’s view on what he might bring to the team, who better to ask than a fellow squad member in Claudio Marchisio?

His [Gilardino] positioning is top-class and he holds the ball up as well as anybody around.
Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio

“He’s got different characteristics to Mario, who’s more physical and quicker,” said the Juventus stalwart in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. “Gilardino is a different type of player, but also a very good one. His positioning is top-class and he holds the ball up as well as anybody around, which helps give the team more attacking possibilities. He’s got a lot of experience too.”

Yet to see action so far at Brazil 2013, Gilardino can point to a respectable record of 18 goals in 53 games for La Nazionale, though he is perhaps best-known for the assist which led to Alessandro Del Piero scoring Italy’s clinching second goal in an epic semi-final against the hosts at Germany 2006. “I really don’t need to say too much about Alberto,” added Marchisio. “His goalscoring record speaks for itself. We’ve got a lot of faith in him.”

Youth and talent
Prandelli’s other two obvious options have quite different profiles to Gilardino, with the first of them AC Milan livewire Stephan El Shaarawy. Still just 20, the rising starlet has enjoyed a spectacular season with his club, racking up 19 goals in 46 games in all competitions.

“Even though he’s not played that much for the senior side (nine caps, one goal), he always gives his all in training and I’ve no doubt he’ll be ready if the gaffer needs him,” said Marchisio on Milan’s ‘Little Pharaoh’. “He’s got loads of quality, is really inventive and can be decisive in front of goal,” added the attacking midfielder. “I’ve no doubt whatsoever that, if he’s picked, he’ll prove all of this.”

While the versatile El Shaarawy differs significantly from Gilardino and, for that matter, Balotelli, Prandelli’s third option – Sebastian Giovinco – would offer yet another intriguing alternative. “He’d bring invention and genius to the side, he’s an incredibly complete player,” said Marchisio on his Juve team-mate. And though Giovinco is certainly not an out-an-out centre-forward, his movement, vision and intelligence also make him a tempting option for Prandelli.

The coach, of course, will have the final say on who starts the eagerly anticipated semi-final but, for the time being, we gave Marchisio the last word on that issue and the mood in the Italy camp ahead of the game. “We’ve got a great team with very good players,” he concluded.

“Obviously Mario’s absence will be significant, but I’m sure whoever comes in for him will be up to the task. Our goal is to be in the final in the Maracana. They [Spain] are the favourites but we’re ready and, at this stage, anything can happen.”