Mario Balotelli has lived up to his reputation at Euro 2012, becoming the focus of attention in the Italy squad with his predictably unpredictable antics.
Now it is in the balance whether England will get to face the enfant terrible of the Premier League in Sunday’s quarter-final showdown.
Dropped against Ireland, Balotelli came off the bench and scored with a fine volleyed goal in Italy’s 2-0 win.
Then, following taunts from the Irish fans, Balotelli unleashed another volley – this time of abuse.
Team-mate Leonardo Bonucci came to Balotelli’s rescue, putting a hand across the striker’s mouth to make it impossible to lip-read what he said – and potentially save him from becoming embroiled in further controversy.
“He said something in English – I’ve no idea what it was,” said Bonucci.
“Unfortunately, Mario is very instinctive. That is also his strength. Without that personality, he wouldn’t have scored such a great goal.”
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli plans to quiz Balotelli to find out if the outburst was aimed at him.
“I don’t know if Balotelli was upset with me, I will ask him. But from Bonucci’s gesture you can see the team spirit in the group.
“Why didn’t he celebrate the goal? That has to be something spontaneous. Perhaps he is not able to express the joy he feels inside.
“He is like that, he has always been like that but that doesn’t mean he is detached from the group.”
Ironically, Balotelli was also photographed laughing and joking with Ireland keeper Shay Given – a former Manchester City team-mate – during his 16-minute cameo in Poznan.
Prandelli was pleased with Balotelli’s performance, but says he is still growing up as a player.
“When he entered the pitch he did what we asked him to do,” the coach added. “In order to take that leap and become a champion, Balotelli has to go through this moments.
“He has to accept criticism, being on the bench and for the team to demand more from him.
“The day he understands that no-one wants to hurt him but rather that everyone is helping him, then we will have a champion.”
Therein lies the paradox that is Balotelli – a wonderfully gifted striker whose natural talent is too often blighted and undermined by a propensity for self-destruction at a cost to his team.
If England fans still harbour concerns over Wayne Rooney’s hair-trigger temper, despite him insisting he is a changed man, it is nothing compared to Balotelli’s potential for meltdown.
He missed 11 games through suspension for City last season and, if he does start against Roy Hodgson’s side in Kiev, he could ultimately be England’s secret weapon.
It takes little for Balotelli to react to a perceived injustice, as everyone at City has discovered, and there seems little evidence of the 21-year-old having learned from his mistakes – something which could play into England’s hands.
The consensus on Italy, after three displays at Euro 2012, is that Cesare Prandelli’s side, while possessing gifted tacticians such as Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, and accomplished finishers such as Antonio Cassano, are pretty average.
After opening with a 1-1 draw against Spain and then another with Croatia, they produced their worst 90 minutes of the tournament against Ireland but still won, which says everything about the quality of the opposition they faced.
Against Ireland, they failed to produce the vibrant football they had shown against Spain and Croatia, with several of their key men strangely off the pace and wasteful in possession.
It was a win derived from application rather than sparkling quality, and England will have been encouraged at the signs of vulnerability they can look to exploit when they meet the 2006 World Cup winners.
Italy usually play with a 3-5-2 formation, although Prandelli changed to 4-1-3-2 against Ireland, with Pirlo in the hole and Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale together up front.
Against Spain and Croatia, Prandelli expressed anger that Italy dropped too deep after taking the lead in both games.
De Rossi has now been restored from an emergency role in defence to his preferred position of central midfield to try to keep Italy higher up the pitch.
A slight knee injury kept Balotelli out of Italy’s starting line-up against Ireland, and the success of the partnership between Cassano and Di Natale is likely to see him remain on the bench.
Cassano has excelled at the tournament, while Di Natale served notice of his enduring threat in attack by coming off the bench to score an exquisite goal in the 1-1 draw with Spain.
At 5ft 8in and 5ft 7in respectively, Cassano and Di Natale do not possess the aerial threat of the 6ft 2in Balotelli.
But Cassano’s headed opener against Ireland showed his threat from set-pieces.
Given the past record, experience within their squad and famed defensive discipline, Italy can never be underestimated when it comes to major tournaments.
But they will need to improve on their patchy display against Ireland if they are to block England’s path to the semi-finals, with Hodgson’s men sure to provide them with a sterner examination.
Cassano insisted Italy don’t care who they face in the last eight.
“We don’t fear anybody,” said the AC Milan striker.
“The important thing was to qualify and now the knockout stage starts we don’t care who we face.
“We feel we can beat anybody.”