There are powder kegs that have started fewer fires than Balotelli has. The eccentric 21-year-old Manchester City striker has been as likely to score a brilliant goal as he has to incur a red card or set alight his bathroom with fireworks.
After being turned down by Barcelona, Balotelli made his professional debut at age 15. Ever since, managers have had to reconcile their ire at his endless antics and their reliance at his improbable combination of size, skill and imagination. So it is, too, for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, who has taken to leaving Balotelli, who has a mere seven caps, off his roster for his antics in Manchester but will rely on him heavily during Euro 2012, short as he is on young, healthy, quality strikers.
Expert's take: As Manchester City has discovered, a team can live by the Balo or die by the Balo. Few players in football are so physically gifted yet mentally challenged. Can Italy rely upon him? It all depends how badly Super Mario wants the world to see what message he has printed on his undershirt during goal celebrations. --Roger Bennett
Stats That Matter:
• Scored 13 goals in 23 Premier League games this season, the first time in his career he has tallied double-digit league goals
• Named Man of the Match in the 2011 FA Cup final as Manchester City collected its first trophy in 35 years
• Named 2010 recipient of the Golden Boy Award as the top U-21 footballer in Europe, joining previous winners such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi
• Part of Inter Milan team that won three consecutive Serie A championships, including the European Treble in 2010
• Inter Milan never lost in 24 games when Balotelli scored a goal
Nani is both a source of huge frustration and of joy to many of his supporters, with his outstanding goals and assists records offset by the regularity with which the Portuguese winger fails to play the easy ball or convert a relatively simple opportunity. Thus, the winger continues to divide opinion amongst even his own club's supporters.
At his best, Nani is a match-winner and has proved unplayable on occasions, with his trickery, pace and ability to shoot with either foot a potent combination. The problem, though, and the reason that he is still often overlooked for bigger games at club level, is that these occasions do not arrive with the regularity that his talent deserves. Talent, though, is one thing that the Portuguese have never traditionally been short of.
At international level, Nani is a key part of the Portugal setup and boasts a more than reasonable goal return in the colors of the Selecção. Five goals during qualification as part of an attacking trio with Cristiano Ronaldo and Helder Postiga bode well ahead of this summer's tournament, but Portugal fans will be hoping that it is this productive version of the Manchester United star that shows up.
Expert's take: Joined Manchester United in 2007 and almost immediately became a starter under Alex Ferguson. Skillful but lacking discipline, he quickly became one of the best modern wingers in the world. Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha is fast, has a great kick and, probably his most important quality, is one of the last "dribblers" left in the Old Continent. --Damian Didonato
Stats That Matter:
• Tallied five goals and four assists in Euro 2012 qualifying
• Created 115 chances over the past two seasons, most on Manchester United and eighth in the Premier League
• Nani has four goals in five career appearances against Denmark, which is in Group B with Portugal
• 70.8 pass completion percentage in Premier League play this season, lowest among all Manchester United outfield players with at least 1,000 attempted passes (League average: 76.7 percent)
• Nani had 13 Premier League assists in the 2011 calendar year, more than any other player in the league, and his 18 assists led the Premier League in 2010-11
Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart has been firmly established as England's No. 1 ever since England returned from the 2010 World Cup. Hart's return from a loan spell at Birmingham, which had shot him into international contention, also saw the young stopper propelled into the first team at title-chasing Manchester City, and the 24-year-old has not looked back since.
Physically, Hart is a giant between the sticks, and his massive frame means that he is amongst the best one-on-one stoppers in the European game. But it is his utter command of the penalty area and security from crosses that truly belie his age that, in international goalkeeping terms, is still remarkably young.
With just 11 goals conceded in his first 17 international games, Hart has adapted to the biggest stage with relative ease, while his first taste of the Champions League at club level should mean that he is fully prepared for the pressure of his first major tournament as England's first choice keeper. He will just be hopeful he can avoid the issues that some of his predecessors have faced in the jersey.
Expert's take: Hart's emergence from lower-league shot-stopper to leader of Man City's title-winning side and marshal of the England defense is no accident. His athleticism is world class while his reflexes and reactions never fail to make up for any perceived weakness. --James Tyler
Stats That Matter:
• England has lost one of his 17 international appearances, a 3-2 defeat to Netherlands on Feb. 29
• One of two English players to appear in all eight Euro 2012 qualifiers (the other: Ashley Cole)
• Only Manchester City player to start every Premier League game in 2011-12
• Led Premier League with 17 clean sheets in 2011-12
• Set Manchester City record with 18 Premier League shutouts and 29 total shutouts in 2010-11
Few players in football’s upper echelons generate quite so much contention as Busquets, holding midfielder and do-all workhorse in the Barcelona midfield. Oft criticized for his occasional foul play and tendency to dive or simulate, those darker elements of his career are footnotes to his functional, composed play for club and country.
Breaking into the Barca squad in 2008, Busquets’ purpose in midfield is unsavory to some but essential for his team. Acting as both shield for his defenders and catalyst for any forward moves, it is Busquets’ aggressive, tenacious presence that frees up creators such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to bomb forward in search of goals.
With Spain, Busquets is impressive in a similar role; alongside the more expansive Xabi Alonso in the heart of midfield, he was instrumental in his nation’s first winning World Cup campaign, playing all but 30 minutes. But the highest praise for Busquets comes not from Catalans, teammates or his former Barca coach Pep Guardiola, but from Spain’s national team boss, Vicente Del Bosque: “If I was a footballer, I would like to be like Busquets.” High praise from the man trusting the 23-year-old Catalonian to anchor La Furia Roja’s search for a third consecutive international title dating back to the 2008 Euros.
Expert's take: A much-improved defensive midfield player. Developed by Guardiola, Busquets is extremely important for Spain. He might not be the fastest player in the world but he reads the game well. --Robbie Mustoe
Stats That Matter:
• Yet to score in his 37 caps with Spain
• Debuted for Spain against Turkey in a 2010 World Cup qualifier on April 1, 2009
• Started every match for Spain in the 2010 World Cup
• Broke through into top-flight football in 2008-09 with Barcelona and has won 13 titles since
• Fifth in La Liga with 2,055 passes completed in 2011-12
Having seized an opportunity (an injury to Rene Adler) to enter the 2010 World Cup as Germany's first-choice goalkeeper, Neuer never looked back and used a magnificent showing at the tournament as a springboard to further success. The 26-year-old caught the eye of many during the event in South Africa and has retained the German No. 1 spot ever since.
In 2011, Neuer made the leap from Schalke 04 to rival Bayern Munich, leading to a hostile reception from his new supporters upon arrival. But a new record set for the longest unbeaten run in the club's history soon saw fans getting behind their new stopper, who is undoubtedly Germany's best keeper since Oliver Kahn.
Neuer is an imposing figure and commands his area brilliantly to deal with balls crossed in from the flanks. Despite his broad frame, he is a remarkably agile shot-stopper and has over the past couple seasons produced memorable saves to deny opponents on a regular basis. Now, for the first time in his career, the Bayern keeper will have the opportunity to display his talents at a European Championship, with his Germany side amongst the pre-tournament favorites for the title.
Expert's take: Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Now at Bayern, he has gained experience and confidence, culminating in a valiant (though losing) effort in the Champions League final. He is still relatively young for a keeper. With time on his side, he will only get better. -- Steve McManaman
Stats That Matter:
• Started all 10 of Germany’s Euro 2012 qualifiers and finished with three shutouts
• Set a Bayern Munich record of 1,147 minutes without conceding a goal between early August and mid-October of 2011
• League-leading 17 shutouts in 33 Bundesliga matches for Bayern Munich this season
• Led Germany's Under-21 side to European title in 2009 as he started all five matches and conceded one goal
• 25 appearances for Germany since debuting in 2009, with a record of 21-2-2 with 10 shutouts (through May 18)
Often told he was too small to make it as a professional when he was young, Gerrard nevertheless grew into a giant among footballers -- not to mention 6-foot tall. Never forsaking his beloved Liverpool from the age of 9 onward-- except for a few trials elsewhere when the Reds dawdled on signing him to his apprentice papers at 14 -- he will be remembered as one of the Merseyside icons who enrich club lore.
At 31, Gerrard still very much has a part to play for England. Even if the blueprint for successfully deploying him alongside Frank Lampard in the England midfield was never properly developed, his attacking verve, technique and engine remain cherished weapons in the English arsenal. There perhaps never has been an English player as readily able to will his team to win games as Gerrard, and having been named as the Three Lions' captain by Roy Hodgson, this summer provides him perhaps one final chance to do so.
Expert's take: Arguably the most complete English player of his generation. Gerrard has natural drive in his game and knows where the goal is, too. At 32 when the Euros begin, less will be expected from Gerrard than in previous tournaments. -- Derek Rae
Stats That Matter:
• Needs one goal to become ninth player to score 150 goals for Liverpool
• 584 appearances for Liverpool, 10th-most in club history
• At 24 years and 360 days, he became the second-youngest European Cup-winning captain when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005. Only Marseille’s Didier Deschamps was younger
• Named UEFA Footballer of the Year in 2005, the only English player to win in 14 years of the award
• Won every possible major trophy with Liverpool except Premier League title
Although Christian Eriksen played two games at the 2010 World Cup, this will be the Dane's first major tournament at international level since becoming a first-team regular for club and country. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has been turning heads over the past couple seasons, and the stage is now set for him to show that he is ready to take the next step in his career.
The talented midfield playmaker has come of age at Ajax in the past two seasons as the latest wunderkind to roll off the Dutch side's renowned production line. Signed from OB Odense in 2008, Eriksen’s rise has been long-awaited, but worth every second. Under Frank de Boer, Ajax has developed a system that is based upon the club's traditions of possession and passing football, with the young Dane serving as the side's creative linchpin in midfield.
Voted the Danish Player of the Year in 2011, Eriksen has started to make an impact on the international scene, including opening his goal-scoring account during the side's qualification campaign. The youngster has shown he is not afraid of the big stage; now he must prove that he has the quality to consistently perform against high-class opposition.
Expert's take: You think the Eden Hazard transfer rumors are boring? Wait until it becomes clear that this latest Ajax prodigy is ready to hit the open market. Gifted on the ball and in the dribble, Eriksen's vision and pace will make him irresistible for -- and vital to -- big clubs around Europe. -- James Tyler
Stats That Matter:
• Seven goals in 33 league games for Ajax in 2011-12
• Won 2010-11 Dutch Eredivisie with Ajax, the club’s first title in seven years
• Youngest Danish player ever to score in Euro qualification with a goal versus Iceland at age 19 in June 2011
• 2011 Dutch Football Talent of the Year and Danish Football Player of the Year
• An attacking midfielder, Eriksen has the longest shot on Ajax with an average shot distance of 24 yards
Since a disappointing Euro 2008, Gomez has emerged as Germany’s next great target forward in the mold of Oliver Bierhoff and Miroslav Klose. Tall at 6-foot-3, strong and lethal in the air, the 26-year-old Bayern Munich striker is rounding into the peak of his career.
His goal-scoring record has followed suit. Gomez has scored a shade under 20 league goals per season in the hard-hitting Bundesliga over the past six years, tallied against each of Germany’s Euro qualifying opponents and already has 21 international goals -- more than Klose, who will probably become Die Mannschaft’s all-time leading scorer, had at his age.
Disclaimer: Gomez has never been a full-time starter or scored a goal at a major international tournament.
Expert's take: A classic hefty target with quick feet. When confident he is capable of scoring in bunches. Deadly from within 6 yards, Gomez has demonstrated a peerless ability to bundle the ball home with literally any part of his body. -- Roger Bennett
Stats That Matter:
• Has scored 80 goals in all competitions for Bayern Munich the past two seasons
• Scored the fastest goal in the Bundesliga in the 2011-12 season when he struck just 24 seconds into a match on April 7
• Scored four goals in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match in a record-tying 23 minutes
• Scored 21 goals in 51 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2007 (through May 18)
• Germany’s record with Gomez in the lineup is 32-10-9 (through May 18)
One of the most talented midfielders in Europe on his day, Nasri hasn’t enjoyed the best of times since joining Manchester City last summer. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the 24-year-old, who has shown throughout his career that he can perform at the top of the game, even if consistency is not always a strong point.
Having been discarded under former French coach Raymond Domenech, Nasri has come back strong under Laurent Blanc to become an important member of this new iteration of Les Bleus. The question, as always, is where and how to play him to get the best out of his abilities. It is an issue that has never fully been answered at club level and one that is currently hindering the Frenchman's progression.
At his best, Nasri is a match-winner, and the agony of Arsenal fans at his departure last season is testament to that fact. Graceful across the ground and with a fantastic ability to pick the right pass, he has terrified top sides when on form, while the former Marseille man is more than adept at breaking into the area late to get onto the score sheet. Euro 2012 presents a big chance for Nasri to deliver a message to his doubters.
Expert's take: Nasri has blown hot and cold in a difficult first season at Manchester City, but playing in the central role that suits him best, Nasri looks ready to lead France's stab at rehabilitating its reputation in major tournaments. --Andy Brassell
Stats That Matter:
• Scored tying goal in final Euro 2012 qualifying match to clinch first place in Group D
• All three of his international goals have been scored in France
• Second on Manchester City with 40 chances created in 2011-12 Premier League play
• All five of his 2011-12 Premier League goals have been scored in the second half
• Second on Manchester City with nine assists in 2011-12
Any biography of Pirlo, perhaps the greatest playmaker of the 2000s, is bound to have more words dedicated to the things he’s won -- everything but the Euro -- than to his personality and what makes him tick. Pirlo is an inconspicuous man in all arenas of life but the field. There, he is nicknamed l’architecto and il metronomo for his capacity to orchestrate the offense and set the pace of a game.
Sitting very deep in the midfield, where he can collect the ball from his defenders, Pirlo’s long balls and set pieces are without equal. In Poland and Ukraine, as ever, Italy’s forwards will only be as strong as the service Pirlo provides them, which propelled the team to the 2006 World Cup, for starters.
Expert's take: Pirlo has rediscovered his ability to single-handedly change games at Juventus. Still a defensive liability, but there’s no one with his passing range in Europe. -- Shaka Hislop
Stats That Matter:
• Led Serie A with 13 assists this season
• Finished as the top Italian in 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year voting
• Won the Bronze Ball and led all players in the 2006 World Cup with three Man of the Match awards, including the final
• Finished as the top scorer and Golden Player as he captained Italy to win the 2000 UEFA U-21 European Championship
• For club and country he has won 10 trophies in seven competitions: Serie A, Italian Cup, Italian Super Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and FIFA World Cup