Super Mario strikes as ten-man Italy beat Denmark
Mario Balotelli capped his return to the international fray with a superb second-half goal as 10-man Italy boosted their 2014 World Cup qualifying bid with a 3-1 win over Denmark here Tuesday.
Balotelli had missed all three of Italy's Group B qualifiers having undergone eye surgery in September and been sidelined with flu on Friday when Cesare Prandelli's side beat Armenia by the same scoreline in Yerevan.
But the former Inter Milan striker, back on familiar ground, gave the Azzurri fans reason to cheer during an otherwise bland encounter between the beaten Euro 2012 finalists and Morten Olsen's World Cup hopefuls.
Asked if he would like to see Balotelli start every Italy game, Prandelli said: "I hope so. When a player is generous, when he does his job and is concentrated on his job, all his qualities shine through."
Even before the match Italy started with a potential psychological handicap after 'keeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon was replaced by Napoli's Morgan De Sanctis after failing a fitness test on a strained adductor muscle.
And despite holding a 2-1 half-time lead the Azzurri were given another scare when Balotelli's strike partner Pablo Osvaldo was sent off a minute into the second half.
Denmark coach Morten Olsen, whose side have yet to win in three games, said that changed little.
"We know that Italy are famous for their ten-man defence, it didn't change much for us having a man advantage," said Olsen.
Until a wonder strike from AC Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo gave Italy a first-half lead, which was doubled by Roma striker Daniele De Rossi two minutes later, the pressure was on De Sanctis.
The Napoli 'keeper was only too happy to see a header from Juventus forward Nicklas Bendtner go wide after just three minutes and then had to look sharp to save Christian Eriksen's powerful shot from the area as the Danes made Italy's defence panic.
Balotelli was given few scoring opportunities in the opening half but his cutback for Claudio Marchisio on 19 minutes saw the Juventus midfielder's powerful shot headed expertly off the line by Simon Kjaer.
Italy were beginning to find their rhythm and Montolivo finally broke the deadlock with a powerful strike from the edge of the area on 33 minutes after helping initiate the move from midfield.
Three minutes later Denmark 'keeper Stephan Andersen was beaten again when De Rossi's glancing header from Pirlo's superb curling cross doubled Italy's lead.
Azzurri joy was tempered, however, when Denmark reduced the arrears in first half injury time after Lars Jacobsen's cross from the right deflected off the head of Italy defender Federico Balzaretti.
It dropped fortuitously in the path of Stuttgart midfielder William Kvist, who beat De Sanctis low to his right with a powerful volley from the edge of the area.
Italy were given another fright only a minute after the restart when Balotelli's strike partner Pablo Osvaldo was sent off for using his hand to fend off the attention of defender Nicolai Stokholm.
If the 37,000 crowd at the San Siro throught Italy would crumble, their fears were allayed in spectacular fashion when Balotelli beat an advancing Andersen to Andrea Pirlo's long midfield ball to poke the ball into the net on 54 minutes.
Italy came under pressure for the remainder of the match but the only real threat came from Jacob Poulsen's last-gasp strike which De Sanctis saved low to his left.
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