Mario Balotelli leaves Italy camp, out of Confederations Cup

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Late yesterday, it was announced that Mario Balotelli would miss Italy’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Spain. On Monday, news got worse.

The AC Milan striker, one of the few internationally established goal scoring threats in Cesare Prandelli’s squad, has reportedly left the Italian squad, a muscle strain ending his tournament:

[tweet https://twitter.com/tancredipalmeri/status/349236613701828608 width=350]

Italy has eight goals in three games in Brazil, and given Balotelli’s only scored two of them (one from the penalty spot), the case for his indispensability doesn’t come through in the numbers. Discard the numbers, look at his play, his team’s set up, and the squad around him, and the influence of Balotelli’s difficult to exaggerate.

Super Mario may only have one open play goal in group play, but he serves an essential purpose at the top of Prandelli’s formation, one that has morphed from a 4-3-1-2 to a single striker look as a second forward has failed to emerge. That one-front is more demanding on Balotelli, particularly as he’s asked to win balls out of the back and hold up play while the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini. join the attack. With the team averaging just under three goals per game, something was going right for Italy, and Balotelli was a large part of it.

Gilardino, who plays as a lone striker at club level, is the obvious replacement, but his role in a 4-2-3-1 somehow seems different than the role Balotelli’s played. Italy can adapt, but with a more physically limited man up top, they’ll have to be less dependent on their striker.

Balotelli’s club teammate Stephan El Shaarawy doesn’t carry the same limitations, but he has yet to develop the kind of game that lends itself to Balotelli’s responsibilities. And with only one goal in nine international appearances, the 20-year-old is still feeling his way out at international level.

All of which is to say the obvious: Neither player is Mario Balotelli. Not many are. For all his enigmatic behaviors, few players provide their teams as many options as Balotelli, options that were evident in last year’s Euro 2012 semifinal when Italy upset Germany.

Balotelli’s two-goal game led the Italians to that tournament’s final. Unfortunately, if the Azzurri are going to spring another surprise, they’ll need to find a new hero.

VIDEO: Messi scores first half hat trick for Barcelona

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Lionel Messi scored a first half hat trick for Barcelona against Eibar on Saturday.

Messi, 33, is warming up quite well for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg as he tore Eibar’s defense to shreds to put them 3-0 up at the break.

In a week where Messi and Barcelona have been in the news amid an emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite, a social media spying scandal and plenty of criticism of sporting director Eric Abidal, the Argentine ace got back to doing what he does best.

Barcelona sat in second place in the La Liga table heading into this weekend, one point behind Real Madrid.

Giroud vows “start of a good run” for Chelsea ahead of UCL

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OIivier Giroud knows he’s given Frank Lampard food for thought as Chelsea improved its top four stock with a 2-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Giroud scored the first goal in making just his third Premier League start and eighth league appearance under Lampard, and now has two goals in 375 minutes this season. The other came against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The Frenchman now has 79 Premier League goals, and the ex-Arsenal man will be doubly thrilled to that four of them have now come against Spurs.

“I was lucky the ball came back after hitting the post and I tried to finish,” Giroud said, via the BBC. “It was a good feeling for me, a good moment and I’m so happy for the team to win today. It’s been three months I didn’t start, it’s been a special day for me and all of us.”

[ MORE: Mourinho reacts ]

Giroud said that this was bigger for Chelsea than it was for him, though.

“It was a very important game for us today. I want to talk about the team spirit. We’ve shown great character today. We knew it was maybe a kind of turning point. We lost a bit of confidence. It was nice to bounce back and get this win, a hard win against a rival, so I feel relieved today.

“Tottenham is obviously a rival for the Champions League race, so we are pleased to put them four points behind us. This is the start of a good run, I hope, now we need to focus on the Champions League. This game would be nice for the confidence and for the changing room.”

Chelsea meets Bayern Munich on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge before a trip to Bournemouth on Feb. 29. The breathing room on fifth place is welcome.

Jose Mourinho defends players “trying to do miracles,” explains Dele move

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Tottenham Hotspur boss Jose Mourinho says he can have no complaints with his shorthanded men following a 2-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho pointed to the absence of strikers Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane as well as a Champions League match in midweek.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“Look at Chelsea they played a World Cup-winning striker up front, England’s second striker on the bench, and Belgium’s second striker in the stands,” he said, via Football.London. “We had no strikers on the pitch, no strikers on the bench and two in the hospital.”

Chelsea were the much better side on the day, with Olivier Giroud making a statement to Frank Lampard about his ability as a center forward.

And Mourinho felt sufficiently shorthanded on the day, especially given the exhausting 1-0 loss to RB Leipzig at midweek.

“Lucas, Lo Celso, Bergwijn,” he said. “These boys that are playing every minute and trying to do miracles in positions that are not their positions. I cannot complain.”

Mourinho also defended keeping Dele Alli on the bench for the first time in his tenure as Spurs boss.

“We had strange game plans but we needed to have them. Like Lamela who played well, people think I’m stupid that I don’t play him, but he’s constantly communicating with me in the warm-up, can I play or not. He was telling me his feelings.”

Spurs will finish the weekend four points back of the top four and as many as two back of fifth. They have eight days until another big match, March 1 versus Wolves.

Watch Live: Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday

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If you want to follow the scores from every single league across the UK, Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday has you covered from 10 a.m. ET and you can watch it live via NBC Sports Gold.

WATCH SOCCER SATURDAY LIVE 

Jeff Stelling and his panel of esteemed former professional players host the show from Sky’s studios in London and Sky have reporters based at grounds across the UK from the Premier League to League Two and all across Scotland’s four divisions and the Welsh Premier League.

With the National League (fifth tier) also reported on, they literally have every single league covered. There is an intriguing Matchweek 27 coming up in the Premier League in particular.

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You can also access additional Premier League games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

WATCH EVERY PREMIER LEAGUE GAME

Click on the link above to watch the Soccer Saturday lads in action as a wonderful accompaniment to all of the live Premier League games you can watch across NBC Sports’ platforms.