Italy captain Leonardo Bonucci said Sunday be believes that Mario Balotelli has matured as the Nice striker prepares to make his first appearance for the Azzurri in four years. New Italy coach Roberto Mancini will oversee his first game in charge of the four-time world champions against World Cup-bound Saudi Arabia in a friendly on Monday night in Saint Gallen, Switzerland.
Mancini has called up 27-year-old Balotelli for three upcoming friendlies after the striker was sidelined by Italy by injury and behavioural problems in recent years.
“I’ve found him (Mario) changed compared to the past, matured,” 31-year-old AC Milan defender Bonucci told a press conference ahead of Monday’s game. Balotelli has scored 13 goals in 33 appearances for the Azzurri but has not been selected since Italy’s humiliating group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup. But he may have to wait until the second friendly against France on June 1 to make his return.
“As for Balotelli, we’ll see if he plays or not (against the Saudis). Mario wants to play in front of his fans in Nice. Let’s see if we deploy him immediately or in the second game,” said Mancini. “He’ll be one of the strikers and we hope he can give us something good for the future because he’s still young.”
Mancini said that he had not yet decided on the lineup for Monday’s game with the only certainty that AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma would start.
“It’s the first game so it’s important to start well, which does not just mean winning,” said Mancini. “The most important thing is that the lads play carefree and that they can have fun, even at the cost of making mistakes.”
Bonucci, meanwhile, said he was relishing his role of captain even if he missed the presence of veterans Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi. “There’s a strong sense of responsibility, but what surpasses everything is pride. I want to be a true example for the rest of lads,” said Bonucci.
Italy play a third friendly against the Netherlands, who also failed to qualify for the World Cup, in Turin on June 4.