Gianluigi Buffon has predicted that Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli will be Italy's player to watch at the European Championship, and outlined his belief that the Azzurri can make their nation proud at the tournament next month.
Italy have a tough group to contend with as Croatia, Ireland and reigning champions Spain block their path to the quarter-finals, but captain Buffon is expecting his young compatriot to fire Cesare Prandelli's side through.
"It will definitely be Balotelli’s European Championship," Buffon said. "Mario is a winner; he was great in the epic final game in this year’s Premier League and he has matured a lot over this last year.
"He has all our support. If he starts behaving like the leader he can be, he will carry the team and make the difference."
Buffon and three other members of the Italy squad - Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Andrea Pirlo - won the World Cup six years ago, but they suffered penalty shootout heartache at the hands of eventual winners Spain in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals, before embarrassingly finishing bottom of their group at the 2010 World Cup.
Under Prandelli, however, Italy have impressed and more is expected of the team in Poland and Ukraine, with Buffon highlighting their 2-1 win against Spain last October as an example of why they should be confident of a good run at Euro 2012.
"Spain remains the team to be beaten," Buffon said. "They have the same team and the same hunger for victories, just with more experience. They are a great group, young and brave, but we have no reason to be afraid of them. The victory against Spain in Bari has been the proof and we absolutely showed our potential.
"The team has changed a lot, there are just four of us remaining from that night in Berlin [the 2006 World Cup final], however all new team-mates have the same passion as we had that time. Now it is their time, it is our time. Prandelli’s group has quality and the desire to conquer something, you really can feel that. Now they are on the pitch, it is their turn. Let’s bring Azzurro back into the Italian hearts.
"We are a proud nation, we don’t sign up for the second position. I assure you that we all want to show great things in this European Championship. Fans sometimes make the difference - their support and passion in 2006 helped us walking together straight to the final. We need the same energy and atmosphere, and we will give everything."© ESPN