Italy have produced some of the best forwards the world has ever witnessed over the years - Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti to name a few. All had their individual qualities and unique personalities but perhaps the biggest talent to emerge from Italy is the ever-controversial Mario Balotelli.
'Super Mario' is a bit like marmite, you either love him or you hate him. No matter, you cannot question his ability. The former Manchester City striker has scored 13 goals in 14 domestic games so far this season in a struggling AC Milan side. He has also notched up 29 international caps, scoring 12 goals.
Balotelli has scored goals no matter which club he has played for. And at the tender age of 23, he has played for quite a few. Four in total, in fact, and if you are to believe the ever increasing rumours which are spreading around, it could be five come August.
Despite the fact Balotelli is Milan's top goalscorer, by quite some distance, his attitude has come into question and not for the first time in his career. And attitude is the very thing that holds the key to Balotelli's and subsequently Italy's World Cup hopes this summer.
Recently the feisty Milan fans got on top of Balotelli for the rather indifferent display he produced in the Serie A side's Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid. He was jeered throughout Milan's match against Parma too.
Even when he's been good he's been bad. After levelling the scores against Cagliari in January, he celebrated by making a foul gesture to the opposition fans, earning himself yet another needless suspension. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was forced to come out in defence of his star man for this particular action.
"Balotelli will learn," Prandelli said to Gazzetta dello Sport. "He needs a lot of love. We need to get the best out of him. He is very tied to his emotions, he has these reactions but he is a very good person. (AC Milan coach Clarence) Seedorf has already said the right things. I am convinced that with Seedorf's help we can bring out the best in Mario."
And whether Seedorf and, more importantly, Prandelli can succeed in getting the best out of Mario remains the key issue when assessing Italy's chances of succeeding in this year's World Cup. Balotelli is undoubtedly Italy's star man and it is imperative he holds his nerve in the big moments in Brazil.
If the unpredictable character does manage to keep his nose clean, Italy certainly stand a much better chance of progressing. If he wasn't as talented as he is, Prandelli wouldn't take a risk on him.
Glancing at Prandelli's other options in attack, Torino's Alessio Cerci is a certainty to make the plane. Giuseppe Rossi has formed a real understanding with Balotelli for the Azzurri any time they've played together and if the former Manchester United striker can overcome his injury problems in time for June then he will surely play.
The real debate surrounds whether Antonio Cassano will be called upon. The Parma forward - who has never participated in a World Cup previously - has been in good form this season, bagging 11 Serie A goals. The 31-year-old has even taken up a special diet to impress Prandelli, losing 22lbs just by cutting out focaccine. If he's managing to cut out bread, surely he has to go?
Dani Osvaldo's spell at Southampton was a bit of a short-lived disaster but he hasn't done his international chances any harm by joining Juventus on loan and he went close to levelling the scores against Spain in March in a match which he started for the Azzurri.
West Ham United target Alberto Gilardino can't be overlooked either, as his domestic form for Genoa of 12 goals has given Prandelli reason to consider the 31-year-old. But you also can't forget Totti and the case he is making for his inclusion in the 23-man squad. The Roma veteran has helped his side to second position in Serie A and with experience of lifting the trophy behind him, it'd be difficult not to give Totti his last hurrah.
Totti's team mate Daniele De Rossi has been at the heart of Italy's midfield for some years now and despite punching Mauro Icardi in a domestic match and subsequently being thrown out of Prandelli's plans for the friendly against Spain, the seasoned veteran will surely be at the centre of the action for the Azzurri this summer. Like Totti, De Rossi also has achieved glory in the World Cup, scoring his spot-kick to help his side beat France in the 2006 final.
The Juventus pair of Andrea Pirlo - who oozes class - and the talented Claudio Marchisio are certainties and AC Milan captain Riccardio Montolivo will make the squad. But question marks still hang over the chance of Napoli's attacking midfielder Lorenzo Insigne being included. The 22-year-old has only represented his country four times but his good form for the impressive Napoli will surely stand him in good stead.
Antonio Candreva has rather flattered to deceive in an Italian shirt but Prandelli lacks options in the final third and the Lazio winger will be expected to come of age in Brazil.
Brazilian born Thiago Motta and Gabriel Paletta, who hails from Argentina, are two players that will make the World Cup team who have qualified through Italian passports but it looks like neither Inter Milan's Jonathan or Hellas Verona's Romolu will be afforded the same privilege in time for this year's competition. Emanuele Giaccherini - who has recently failed to steak a claim in Gus Poyet's Sunderland side - may also miss out.
It is important to keep club mates together where possible in an international team and Italy have their centre-backs firmly in place in the Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. It is who plays either side of them where the debate lies. Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito weren't convincing in the match against Spain, while Federico Balzaretti, who is currently out injured with a hernia, was at fault for Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner's double against the Azzurri back in October.
Young AC Milan defender Mattia De Sciglio is a versatile young player who can play either right-back or left-back and the 21-year-old has a bright future ahead indeed. Ignazio Abate is guaranteed of a place in the squad but whether he will be granted a spot in the starting XI remains to be seen.
The only other sure starter is Juventus icon Gianluigi Buffon in goal. The nation's most capped player, with 139 appearances, was confirmed as Prandelli's first choice, not that it needed saying. If disaster struck and Buffon was unavailable to play, Paris Saint-Germain's impressive Salvatore Sirigu would step in.
All things considered, Italy have a relatively strong squad and Prandelli has some very tough choices to make prior to this year's World Cup. If Balotelli can keep his head and produce the same vein of form which saw him grab a brace in Euro 2012's semi-final with Germany then Italy have every chance of creating a shock in Brazil this time around.
Darren Beattie - @darrenbeatz
- Sports & Recreation
- Mario Balotelli
- Francesco Totti
- AC Milan