Mario Balotelli powers Italy past England

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MANAUS, Brazil – Mad Mario didn't get mad on Saturday, he got even.

Mario Balotelli, the controversial Italian forward, reminded England fans that he is as brilliant as he is unpredictable as he scored the winner in his team's 2-1 victory at Arena Amazonas.

The World Cup is the kind of stage made for Balotelli, who divided opinion wildly during his three years with Manchester City in the English Premier League before returning to Italy with AC Milan. And he didn't let this opportunity slip.

[Related: Slideshow: Everything you need to know about Mario Balotelli ]

After the Group D rivals exchanged goals late in the first half, Balotelli was in the right place at the right time for his crucial blow five minutes into the second half.

Mario Balotelli scores past England's goalkeeper Joe Hart.  (AP)
Mario Balotelli scores past England's goalkeeper Joe Hart. (AP)

The cross from the right was on the money, Balotelli timed his run perfectly and the 23-year-old who attracts controversial headlines wherever he goes powered a header past former City teammate Joe Hart for the clincher.

“I think he could do a lot more. I told him (that) earlier,” Italy head coach Cesare Prandelli said of Balotelli. “His potential is enormous. He just has to be persuaded. He has to give it his all. He has room for improvement.”

There was still 40 minutes left, but for most of the second half England looked a spent force and are now in severe danger of crashing out of this tournament at an embarrassingly early point in proceedings.

On June 19, the Three Lions will take on Uruguay, who suffered a shocking 3-1 loss to Costa Rica earlier in the day. The loser of that game, almost certainly, will be headed for home and play no part in the knockout stage.

[Related: Costa Rica stuns Uruguay 3-1 ]

As if one familiar face was not enough, England came unstuck courtesy of another for Italy's first goal. Andrea Pirlo, the architect of England's demise in the European Championship quarterfinal two years ago, tilted the game in the Italians' favor.

Pirlo didn't score Italy's goal, in fact he didn't even touch the ball. But the master technician's "dummy" – a move in which he allowed a pass headed towards him to run through his legs – completely fooled the England defense and allowed Claudio Marchisio to fire home after 35 minutes.

In what was expected to be a low-scoring game, primarily due to the stifling heat of Manaus even later into the evening, the lead looked to be crucial.

It didn't last long. England answered almost immediately with Wayne Rooney producing his best moment of the afternoon.

Rooney surged down the left flank and provided an outstanding cross for the fast-advancing Daniel Sturridge, who made no mistake in deflecting it into the net.

But, thanks to Balotelli, it wasn't enough. England did have chances: Leighton Baines forced goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu into a solid save midway through the second half and could be proud of a job well done having replaced injured Gianluigi Buffon.

Later, Pirlo almost added to the damage, rattling the crossbar with a brilliant free kick that deserved a goal.

The United States will have been watching closely. Jurgen Klinsmann's side does not have to play either of these teams unless they go deep in the tournament, but the U.S. has to battle Manaus and all its quirks in its second game against Portugal.

The pitch looked choppy and the weather was muggy. England team doctor Gary Lewin had to receive medical attention although the cause of his problem was not immediately released.

As the players tired, mistakes crept in. Rooney spectacularly skewed a corner, managing to get the ball nowhere near the field let alone the danger area. Jack Wilshere, Glen Johnson and Raheem Sterling also made clumsy mistakes.

Liverpool teenager Sterling showed plenty of attacking intent but in the end, more circumspection on the part of coach Roy Hodgson might have been welcome given the possession Italy had and the way it used it.

England doesn't have that luxury anymore, going into what is effectively an elimination game against Uruguay. That is thanks to Balotelli, the erratic star who used his head, literally, when he had to.

England head coach Roy Hodgson said, “If you lose the first game you know you’ve probably got to win the next two but then again the teams you are playing against have got to win too. There is no way you can drift to a qualification here. We and Uruguay are on the back foot. At least our fate is in our hands.”