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    Maybe Mario Balotelli's absence will help Italy

    Balotelli, who scored two goals and set up another in Italy\'s opening three matches, flew home Monday with a strain

    Fortaleza: Coach Cesare Prandelli is hoping that without star striker Mario Balotelli, Italy will gel as a more solid unit in the Confederations Cup semi-final against Spain on Thursday. "From an individual standpoint he adds something big to this squad, so we lose something in terms of quality but maybe it can improve the quality of our play," Prandelli said Wednesday.

    Balotelli, who scored two goals and set up another in Italy's opening three matches, flew home Monday with a strained left thigh. Not one for secrets, Prandelli announced that Alberto Gilardino will take Balotelli's spot at center forward against the World Cup holder. A member of the Italy squad that won the 2006 World Cup, Gilardino shot to prominence under Prandelli at Parma a decade ago and also played for the manager at Fiorentina.

    "He's a reliable player, a generous player, a reference point for the squad and a player who knows how to score goals," Prandelli said. "His numbers prove that. He's not here just because I had him at Parma and I like him." After a disappointing season at Genoa, the 30-year-old Gilardino showed he can still find the target by scoring 13 goals for Bologna in Serie A this past season. The only Italy player who scored more was Stephan El Shaarawy, who had 16 - but only two in the second half of the season, when the 20-year-old AC Milan forward appeared to struggle with fatigue.

    "They have others who are starters on their own teams, who have different playing styles," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "I don't think it's a decisive absence. (Balotelli) is a very good player, but I don't think it will decide things." However, Balotelli isn't the only Italy player missing.

    Fullback Ignazio Abate also flew home with a dislocated right shoulder that occurred in the 4-2 loss to Brazil. Furthermore, key midfielder Andrea Pirlo sat out the Brazil match due to a muscle problem and remains questionable and reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu picked up a right knee injury in training Tuesday, perhaps leaving only Federico Marchetti to backup Gianluigi Buffon.

    On a positive note, midfielder Riccardo Montolivo has recovered from a knock to the head in the opening minute against Brazil. Italy was routed 4-0 by Spain in last year's European Championship final but the teams opened that tournament with a 1-1 draw. And Italy beat Spain 2-1 in a friendly in 2011.

    "We're one of the few squads that has put Spain in difficulty," Prandelli said. "And if we play with courage and personality we can hurt them again." Both Prandelli and Buffon, Italy's 35-year-old captain, said that Italy's goal was to keep the squad's shape throughout the match. "The Euro final wasn't a realistic result for who we are and what we represent," Buffon said. "They're the best team in the world right now but if we play a balanced match to the end we have a chance."