Rome, January 27 - Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said Monday that he was confident AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli will overcome his disciplinary problems if he is given support and "love".
The 23-year-old forward was booked after scoring a superb free kick to help Milan to a comeback 2-1 win at Cagliari on Sunday to give Clarence Seedorf his second consecutive league triumph since taking over as coach of the struggling Serie A giants.
Balotelli, who hit his ninth Serie A goal of the season on Sunday, was punished for directing a rude sexual gesture at home fans who had abused him.
The yellow card means the gifted, volatile forward will be handed the latest in a long series of suspensions.
"Balotelli will learn," Prandelli said. "It will take a lot of love.
"He's a guy who we give a lot to and who is very important for Milan.
"I'm sure that, with Seedorf's help, we'll bring out the goodness that Mario has inside". After the yellow card, former Milan and Netherlands midfielder Seedorf defended Balotelli, who had been linked to a move away from Milan in the January transfer window because of his difficult character.
"I told him to relax because I understand him," Seedorf said of the player, who has Ghanaian roots and is frequently the victim of racist abuse.
"The attitude the (Cagliari) fans had with him was not nice. He's improved in recent months and he'll continue to do so.
"We have to help him to grow because he is an asset for Italy. I've told him that he can count on me". Prandelli said his main concern ahead of the World Cup was the threat of injuries hitting his squad between now and this summer's tournament in Brazil. He added that it will be a big boost to Italy's chances if Fiorentina forward Giuseppe Rossi regains fitness and is able to take part after suffering a knee injury this month. The 26-year-old is Prandelli's first-choice partner up front for Balotelli.
"At the moment I'm only worried about injuries," Prandelli said. "I hope to get Giuseppe Rossi back because he's unique in his role". Rossi, Serie A's top scorer with 14 goals, is expected to be out for at least another month after damaging ligaments in his right knee in fourth-placed Fiorentina's first game after Serie A's Christmas break. It was the same knee he suffered two cruciate ligament injuries in, sidelining him for two years between 2011 and 2013.
The national team coach, who has is expected to step down to return to club football after the World Cup, also spoke about the title race Monday at the fringes of an awards ceremony in Milan.
He said Juventus, his old club during his playing days, remain the team to beat in Serie A after second-placed AS Roma narrowed the gap on the champions to six points at the weekend.
"Juventus are the team to beat and they have everything they need to do it again," Prandelli said of the Turin giants, who are aiming to notch their third consecutive Serie A title this term. Roma gained ground with a 3-1 win at Verona after Juve were held 1-1 at Lazio, stopping their best-ever run of victories in the top flight at 12. Ivory Coast forward Gervinho, a summer signing from Arsenal, scored a fine goal for the Giallorossi and set another one up as his impressive run of form continued. "Roma are playing some very eye-catching soccer and they are determined," added Prandelli. "I hope the championship remains exciting until the end".