There were signs of a Stephan El Shaarawy/Mario Balotelli partnership when the pair played together for the first time in Italy's friendly game against France in August. Reunited at AC Milan following the latter's arrival from Manchester City FC, the duo are expected to face the Netherlands on Wednesday – early promise is bringing swift reward.
"Mario has already shown himself to be a real champion," El Shaarawy told UEFA.com after that friendly against France. "He has been playing at the top level for many years. We felt good on the pitch and understood each other very well. He is really a very supportive guy, and we really got along with each other very well."
Italy played well despite losing that friendly 2-1, and the 20-year-old El Shaarawy opened his international account after a fine team move which involved Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo, another Milan player. "To score a goal against such an important team as France was definitely a great satisfaction," he explained. "It's a pity that we lost, as we didn't deserve to – we had chances to turn the result around."
Last week, Balotelli joined El Shaarawy at Milan and scored two goals in his first game – a 2-1 victory against Udinese Calcio on Sunday. "He seems to have already changed his image," Italy boss Cesare Prandelli said. "He smiles and laughs a lot now. He has already found that calmness which he lost in England, where he was forced to deal with a lot of non-football issues.
"Now he'll get more regular games but much depends on him," the Italy coach continued. "Mario can only get better. The fact that he will play with El Shaarawy at club level is an advantage for us. I'm not saying that we have already decided the attacking pair of the future but we had already tried them together against France in August and saw their potential."
After facing the Netherlands, Italy will play another friendly on 21 March against Brazil, before restarting their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in Malta five days later. The Azzurri top Group B with ten points in four games, and Prandelli promised to get his hair cut in the players' honour if they led his side to glory.
"If Balotelli and El Shaarawy lead us to win the World Cup in 2014, I will get a mohican on my head," Prandelli joked. "Or even two."
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