Keown issues Balotelli warning

  • Last Updated: June 10 2014, 17:53 BST

Martin Keown is urging England's defenders to stamp their authority on Italy danger-man Mario Balotelli on Saturday.

Mario Balotelli: Key that England defenders handle the striker
Mario Balotelli: Key that England defenders handle the striker

Balotelli scored in the shoot-out when Italy knocked England out on penalties at Euro 2012 and is likely to lead the line for the Azzurri in Manaus.

The former Manchester City striker is capable of the spectacular and Keown, who played 43 times for England, says the Three Lions cannot afford to give Balotelli an inch in their crunch World Cup opener.

"Our defenders can handle him but there is a certain way to play against Balotelli - you really have to show him who's boss early on," said Keown, who was speaking on behalf of Official England Supporter williamhill.com.

"You can't switch off for a moment because he doesn't have to do anything and he's still a threat - it doesn't bother him.

"There's a lot of disruption going on in his life but when he's on the pitch, he's in the zone.

"If Italy want to win the game, they have to play Balotelli and it's up to our central defenders to cope with him.

"If he's focused and he's happy in his football and his life, he is a special talent and Italy will be relying on him."

England know defeat against Italy would leave their hopes of qualification from Group D hanging by a thread with a difficult encounter against Uruguay to follow five days later.

Both sides may be content to settle for a draw but Keown believes England should go for the win and hopes England manager Roy Hodgson is bold in his team selection.

"A draw would be an OK result but a win would be a great result," Keown said.

"It would be great for the players to bed them into the tournament because there will be a lot of nerves around.

"If you don't win that first game, even if you draw, that pressure builds and you get fewer and fewer opportunities to progress.

"My view is that England have to be positive and play their best team from the start.

"Brazil will be playing their best team from the start - (Luiz Felipe) Scolari will play his best attacking players from the off and that's the challenge for Roy - does he believe in his players enough?"

England have a wealth of young, attacking talent at their disposal with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all vying for a starting spot on Saturday.

Hodgson will have to leave some of that creative potential on the bench and substitutions could prove decisive, particularly with the game likely to be played in high temperatures and intense humidity.

"Roy is probably going to be solid and start with the players who have started so far in the friendlies so it might be come down to which team is braver with their substitutions," Keown said.

"It's not always easy to come off the bench and quickly pick things up but these youngsters are good enough to do that and England can change gear when the opposition are tiring.

"That could be the perfect tactic for Roy - even if the team are doing well and hanging in there, England can still go for it and put these players on to win the game at the end."