It appears that Cesare Prandelli will install his faith in Mario Balotelli, the striker who has scored 12 goals in just over 2 years with his country and who gave Italy an extra gear with 3 goals at Euro 2012, when the Azzurri meet with England in their first match of the 2014 World Cup in Manaus on June 14th. Despite a difficult season for the extra Manchester City and Inter Milan forward, faced with criticism from the media and fans of AC Milan who saw him score 14 league goals for the club as they slipped to a disappointing 8th place finish in Serie A.
Whilst a respectable total, Balotelli often cuts a frustrated and isolated striker, troubled by his own languid style that sees him more comfortable operating on the periphery of a game, waiting with deadly patience for the right time to pounce. Milan though have been in need of much more, with the media’s carping reaching a head after an anonymous display in a 2-0 defeat to Roma.
“You don’t understand anything about football. Trust me, you really don’t. …You always talk about me. When Milan win Mario’s great, when Milan lose it’s all Mario’s fault. You expect me to score five goals a game. I don’t need your criticism, I make my own criticism” said Balotelli in retort to Sky Italia’s punditry view that he was “not a top player”.
Prandelli however thinks differently and his trust seems un-wilting, despite having access to 6 players who have scored more than Balotelli in Serie A this season. The summer’s World Cup is perhaps a tournament too late in the careers of Luca Toni, who scored 20 goals for Verona, Antonio Di Natale, 17 with Udinese and Antonio Gilardino who got 15 with Genoa. Domenico Berardi netted 16 for Sassuolo but his 19 years of age renders him too young while Giuseppe Rossi, who miraculously got the same number for Fiorentina despite missing four months of the season with another damage to the ligament of his right knee, made Prandelli’s 30-man squad but was seen as too much of a fitness risk to survive the final cut.
That leaves Ciro Immobile, the 24 year old who has just signed with Borussia Dortmund after netting 22 goals in 33 Serie appearances for Torino, plus 1 more in the Coppa Italia. He is rather late to the national scene, having only made his debut as a substitute in the 1-0 friendly defeat to Spain in March, but will travel along with Balotelli and his club team-mate Alessio Cerci, who scored 13 times last term, to Brazil this summer. England will be rightfully adapting their plans to deal with Balotelli before they meet in the depths of the Amazon rainforest but Roy Hodgson’s side must also be focussed on dealing with Immobile, the man primed to make this a tournament in which his sizeable talent, and not his surname, is imprinted in the memory.
Immobile was born in the city of Torre Annunziata, a city in the Campania region of southern Italy, and he went on to start his youth career with Sorrente Calcio, a lower-league club based in the region. In the 2007-08 season with Sorrente, Immobile scored 30 goals in the team’s under-17 side and was alerted to Juventus by then-assistant manager of Italy, Ciro Ferrara. Juve were convinced enough to sign him that summer for £80,000 and took him to Turin to play him their Primavera (under-20) team.
He immediately struck up a prolific partnership with Ayub Daud, a striker now of Budapest Honved, leading the Bianconeri to victory in the 2009 Torneo di Viareggio, the annual tournament of youth football in Italy. He scored five goals, including 2 in the 4-1 win over Sampdoria in the final, earning him his senior first-team debut as a substitute against Bologna just a month later, where he replaced club legend Alessandro Del Piero. The following season, even though he scored a hat-trick against Empoli in the final of another Torneo Di Viareggio tournament (this time around he netted 10 goals), he made just 2 substitute appearances for the Old Lady and was sent out on loan to Siena of Serie B the following July.
His time with Siena was disappointing with Siena however and after just 4 appearances and 1 goal he left the club in January 2011, only to be immediately farmed out to another Serie B team in Grosseto for the remainder of the season. Though he was given increased playing time, making 16 appearances including 10 as a starter, he again only managed to score once, and he returned to Juventus in the summer.
In August of 2011 he went out on loan again, once to more to Serie B with Pescara. This time though his temporary spell was a huge success, making 36 starts for the Delfini, scoring 28 goals to finish top of scoring charts and to also win a place in the league’s team of the season for 2011/2012. His time with Pescara under the tutelage of Zdenak Zeman, the Czech manager with expertise in coaching and equipping attacking players with incisive runs, was to prove pivotal.
Genoa had already reacted to Immobile’s growing stock, purchasing 50% of his registration rights from Juventus in January 2012. Once his loan with Pescara ended, he formally joined Genoa in the league above, but despite a bright start to life at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in which he had scored 5 goals by 18th November, he failed to score in the second half of the season and finished the campaign with an underwhelming 5 goals from 33 top-flight appearances (21 as a starter) as Genoa narrowly avoided relegation with a 17th placed finish.
On 12th July 2013, Juventus bought out Genoa’s half of Immobile’s ownership and on the same day Torino were permitted to sign a new co-ownership deal for the striker for a similar fee. He scored his first goal of the season in the first round of the Coppa Italia against Pescara but had to wait until the 7th October before his first league goal for the club. What followed was an excellent run of form which included 12 goals in his next 15 league matches. In March he netted a hat-trick in 3-1 win over Livorno, scored a brilliant volley against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico before in April he scored winning goals in vital 2-1 wins over Catania and Genoa. Goals against Lazio and Udinese followed as he marked six consecutive matches with a goal, before he scored his 22nd and final goal of the season against Parma in the penultimate match of the season. A second-half red card saw him suspended for the final game with Fiorentina, but the conclusion to an excellent season drew celebration as he became the first Torino player to win the Capocannoniere (Italy’s top-scorer) since Ciccio Graziani in 1977.
His brilliant form instigated interest from Borussia Dortmund who completed a completed a reported £15.5 million deal for the striker before he flies to the World Cup with his country. Seen as a prime replacement for the outgoing Robert Lewandowski, he was handed a 5-year deal with the German club.
Strengths, Style and Weaknesses
“He is a real powerhouse that has played in all positions and…He is used to operating with high intensity without losing any of his scoring prowess” said Jurgen Klopp after he signed him for Dortmund. “He can, will and must still improve in many areas and we want to help him.”
The last line significant in remembering that Immobile is still raw and a relative late-bloomer as a professional, only recently proving his precious talent in one of Europe’s top leagues after a series of poor loan spells.
His potency in front of goal was owing to the brilliance of Alessio Cerci who was free to roam in the areas around his partner in order to create chances. Often waiting on the shoulder of the defender for through-balls, comparisons have been made with Fillippo Inzaghi, who was frequently ruled offside, but he refuses to give his markers a moment’s rest as he constantly darts into channels of space both on the left and right sides of attack. This owes a great deal to the striker’s intelligence as he anticipates passes and times his runs efficiently as he lacks the pace required to sprint away from defenders who are close-by. As the striker himself puts it, he is most unlike his surname,
“Let’s say I’m the complete opposite,” he explained. “I like to attack the spaces, move around a lot, and make cuts.
Because of these traits, he is generally viewed as a poacher and indeed 20 goals of his 22 scored for Torino last term were netted from within the 18 yard box. However, given his accuracy rate of 48% of shots on target across the last campaign, it is remarkable that he managed to score that many goals when compared to Carlos Tevez, who had a rate of 58% and that of the man he is replacing at Dortmund, Robert Lewandowski, who has an accuracy rate of 67%. With Immobile registering 44 of his 85 shots off target last season, it is an area of his game that will require improvement if he is to continue with such a consistent scoring rate.
Meanwhile, only 26 of Immobile’s 101 total shots on goal came from outside the area, showing that most of the striker’s work is done within it. He can sometimes be available to drop deep in order to turn and attempt to dribble past defenders but he does not appear willing to do it enough. The striker also lacks the physicality needed to impose himself on defenders, standing at just 178cm tall and weighing at 71kg, he managed just 3 headed goals in Serie A last term. Though refusing to stay in one spot, constantly on the move and an incredibly astute reader of the game, it makes him notoriously hard to mark, especially when provided with effective service around the box.
“Ten months ago he wasn’t in contention” said Prandelli who is now taking him to Brazil to form the next-step of the 24 year old’s late-blossoming rise to prominence. He is Italy’s rough-diamond, potentially the next-in-line of the Azzurri’s World Cup impact players which have formerly seen Paolo Rossi and Toto Schillaci emerge onto the world scene. While Balotelli, for all of his troubles, is expected to get the main role on Prandelli’s stage, Immobile is on hand to become one extremely dangerous support-act.