WARSAW (Reuters) - Everyone loves a maverick, as long as he delivers, and Mario Balotelli has evolved in a fortnight from a luxury Italy thought they could not afford into the key to their hopes of winning the European Championship for only the second time.
Profligate Mario in the opening two games of the tournament against Spain and Croatia, the 21-year-old is once again "Super Mario" after his superb double strike gave Italy their 2-1 win over Germany on Thursday to book a return meeting with Spain in Sunday's final.
That is where the tournament began for the Italians and Balotelli made so little impact in that match against the holders and in the second against Croatia, when he was even "out-Marioed" by Croatia's Mario Mandzukic, that he was dropped for the third against Ireland.
He came off the bench in that game though to smash in a sumptuous volley to seal the 2-0 win that sent Italy into the quarter-finals.
Against England he was back to his wasteful worst, lashing shots high and wide at every opportunity and earning some hard looks from his unimpressed team mates.
Undaunted, he demanded to take the first penalty of the shootout and duly scored to set Italy on the way to an eventual 4-2 triumph after a goalless 120 minutes.
Balotelli was once described as "unmanageable" by Jose Mourinho when he was in charge of the then-teenage striker at Inter Milan, but Italy boss Cesare Prandelli gave continual public backing to his man.
The player himself dismissed accusations that he was immature, saying what he did on the pitch should be judged differently from his many and varied off-field antics.
Retained in the starting lineup for Thursday's semi-final, Balotelli put Italy in front after 20 minutes with a goal honed on the training ground of Manchester City as he rose to head home Antonio Cassano's cross.
Italian fans who had been ripping into him earlier in the tournament were in raptures, but the best was still to come.
Sixteen minutes later, anticipating a long over-the-top ball by Riccardo Montolivo, he spun clear of his marker and was suddenly bearing down on goal.
Critics who had seen him in similar positions on several occasions this tournament would no doubt have been waiting for the hesitation or the unnecessary extra touch, but Balotelli had learned from his errors.
This time his touch was sure and he steadied himself just enough to unleash a fearsome drive that flew into the top corner with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer a startled spectator.
The Italian bench exploded but Balotelli still refused even the hint of a smile and instead still had enough stupidity about him to rip his shirt off and thrust his chest out to await his celebrating team mates.
He was duly booked and it would have been entirely typical if some mistimed tackle later in the match had earned him a second yellow and a suspension from the final.
Instead he rather faded out of the game and was eventually substituted, clearly against his will, with what looked like cramp 20 minutes from time.
"Mario is rather unique, he's atypical," said Prandelli in one of his least surprising pieces of player analysis.
"He's very strong and fights for the team. He's always been there when called upon and he fights in the penalty area.
"He was very focused and did what I asked him to and he did those things that put opponents in difficulty.
"The career of Mario Balotelli has only just begun."
Balotelli was every bit the team man when he eventually spoke to journalists.
"If we win and I score, it's going to be amazing," he said of Sunday's final.
"If we win, and I don't score, it's also going to be amazing."