Balotelli fires Italy to win in Poland
Mario Balotelli scored his first international goal with a spectacular long-range strike to help Italy beat European Championship co-host Poland 2-0 in a friendly Friday and ease the Azzurri's attacking woes.
Balotelli received the ball about 40 yards (35 meters) from goal and spotted Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny off his line, taking a few steps forward before beating him with a dipping long-range effort.
It was the Manchester City striker's first goal in six internationals and comes at a timely moment with starting forwards Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano out with long-term injuries.
Rossi had knee surgery last week and Cassano is recovering from heart surgery, with both players expected to be out for up to six months. Their chances of recovering in time for next summer's Euro 2012 are slim.
But their replacements in the starting lineup both scored, with Giampaolo Pazzini doubling Italy's advantage in the second half. Pazzini dedicated his goal to Cassano.
''This great display by Balotelli counts for a lot because even aside from the goal, Mario played a great game,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. ''Compliments to him and the team.''
Pazzini issued a warning about putting too much pressure on the 21-year-old.
''Mario scored a great goal and I scored an important one for me,'' Pazzini said. ''We're getting better and better as we're approaching the Euros. These games are important to try out certain things and we were clinical in taking our chances.
''We shouldn't burden Balotelli with too much responsibility. There's a lot of expectation around him but that could damage him.''
Poland captain Jakub Blaszczykowski missed a penalty five minutes from time.
''Once again we didn't concede,'' Prandelli added. ''Poland started strongly but we contained them and then we found our balance in certain areas.''
Franciszek Smuda's team has greatly improved since a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Spain in June 2010 and had lost just twice in its last 15 matches heading into the game.
And it was Poland which had the first chance of the match, in the opening minute, as a dangerous looking ball was floated into the box, but headed clear by Ignazio Abate, who was making his international debut.
Poland looked threatening on the counterattack and it was from yet another one of those that Domenico Criscito brought down Jakub Blaszczykowski on the edge of the area, but the free kick was blasted straight into the Italy wall.
The home side went even closer in the 13th as Slawomir Peszko beat the offside trap and raced into the area only to send his effort wide.
Italy, clearly missing Cassano and Rossi, had to wait until the 16th minute for its first sight of goal as Pazzini darted clear, but Damien Perquis caught up with him in the nick of time.
Italy was getting better, however, and should have gone in front in the 19th minute as a cross found Daniele De Rossi unmarked inside area. The Roma player could have shot but tried to pass to Pazzini and Poland cleared the danger.
After that good spell, Italy almost shot itself in the foot shortly afterward, when Gianluigi Buffon - playing his 111th game for his country - made a rare error. The Juventus goalkeeper flapped at a corner and Robert Lewandowski got a header in, but it hit the wrong side of the post.
Blaszczykowski threatened again in the 29th as he forced his way into the box but Italy managed to scramble the ball away.
Italy took the lead moments later as Balotelli took advantage of Szczesny's poor positioning.
Prandelli's team improved greatly after the break and should have doubled its lead early in the second half when Montolivo found Balotelli unmarked in the area, only for the youngster to head wide of the far post.
Poland could have equalized in the 55th minute but Eugen Polanski fired his effort narrowly past the left upright. Instead, Italy doubled its lead on the hour mark. Simone Pepe flicked on Balotelli's through ball to Pazzini, and the Inter Milan striker slotted it past Szczesny, who should have done better.
The Arsenal goalkeeper atoned somewhat for his error in the 67th minute when Alessandro Matri raced clear from the halfway line and found himself one on one with the Poland goalkeeper, who managed to get a foot to the shot and deflect it to safety.
Poland had a chance to get back into the game in the 85th minute when it was awarded a generous penalty after a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge between Andrea Ranocchia and Lewandowski.
However, Blaszczykowski blasted his spot kick straight at Buffon who saved comfortably.
Poland: Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Piszczek, Damien Perquis (Marcin Wasilewski, 67), Jakub Wawrzyniak, Eugen Polanski (Adam Matuszczyk, 65), Rafal Murawski (Dariusz Dudka, 80), Jakub Blaszczykowski, Ludovic Obraniak (Pawel Brozek, 56), Slawomir Peszko (Adrian Mierzejewski, 67), Robert Lewandowski.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Ignazio Abate, Andrea Ranocchia, Giorgio Chiellini, Domenico Criscito (Angelo Ogbonna, 77), Daniele De Rossi (Simone Pepe, 46), Andrea Pirlo (Thiago Motta, 46), Claudio Marchisio (Alessandro Matri, 62), Riccardo Montolivo (Antonio Nocerino, 62), Giampaolo Pazzini (Alberto Aquilani, 62), Mario Balotelli.