St Gallen, Switzerland: Mario Balotelli got new Italy coach Roberto Mancini off to a winning start by scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in a pre-World Cup friendly in Saint Gallen on Monday. Saudi Arabia face hosts Russia in the opening match of the tournament on June 14 while four-time champions Italy stay home following their failure to qualify for the first time in 60 years. Made the scapegoat for Italy’s first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup, Balotelli’s four-year Azzurri hiatus ended when he was recalled by Mancini, appointed six months after Italy’s shock failure to qualify for Russia following a playoff defeat to Sweden.
It took the 27-year-old Nice striker just 21 minutes to get on the scoreboard with his first goal for Italy since netting the winner against England at the 2014 World Cup. Substitute Andrea Belotti added a second midway through the second half before Yahya al Shehri pulled one back for the Saudis following Italian defensive blunders. “I’m satisfied with the first half-performance. The difficulties of the second half were down to tiredness due to the extra fitness training we’ve been doing over the last few days,” said Mancini.
“Saudi Arabia are approaching peak form because they are going to the World Cup. I wasn’t angry about the goal we conceded. I thought it was down to fatigue.” Mancini said Balotelli’s performance was “pretty good”. “Balotelli can do better, much better, but I thought he did pretty good in the first half. He scored a goal, which is important for a striker, but of course he can do more.”
Italy have dropped to their lowest ever world ranking of 20th, but were in control against the 67th-ranked Saudis. Mancini opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal and Sassuolo winger Matteo Politano handed his full debut. Balotelli came out firing early with the Nice striker heading just wide off a Leonardo Bonucci cross. He finally found a way through with a low drive under the outstretched arms of Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed al Owais for his 14th goal in 34 appearances. — AFP