FOX Soccer Exclusive
Balotelli symbolic of Milan renaissance
Deep down, Mario Balotelli probably knew he had to go. We all did.
Too glaring was his unhappiness in Manchester this season, too frequent the number of times City manager Roberto Mancini had to downplay his fourth-choice forward’s mood swings and run-ins with teammates. To practically everyone who followed the Premier League, it was clear the Italian marksman, who so often let his camouflaged Bentley, t-shirt messages and off-field adventures overshadow his natural talents, needed a change of scenery.
Maybe, we thought, a move to his boyhood club AC Milan, a return to his native Italy, would give him a second crack at fulfilling his potential.
But could we really expect this?
Just two months after an irritating, drawn-out January transfer saga, Balotelli has gone from sulking benchwarmer in Manchester to born-again scoring machine for Milan. The much-maligned arrogance that once prompted Jose Mourinho to deem him “unmanageable” has, suddenly, turned back into the swagger that was so on display in last summer's European Championship. BaLOLtelli, as a popular Twitter account mocks, is “Super Mario” again.
In just six matches since his return to Serie A, the enigma has scored seven goals, including three game-winners and a point-saving penalty goal at Cagliari. Two Sundays ago, Balotelli scored both goals as the Rossoneri beat Palermo at the San Siro. The victory was Milan's third straight and fourth in five matches.
Truth be told, Balotelli hasn’t been the catalyst to Milan’s fine form. The Rossoneri started its incredible turnaround back in November.
Milan was languishing in the bottom third of the table at the time, having lost four of their first seven home games and playing erratic football on the road. Fans grew concerned over the direction of the club, blamed the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva – by far their best players last season – for their woes, and called for manager Massimiliano Allegri’s head.
But since then, Milan has been injected with new life. After a 3-1 loss to Fiorentina on Nov. 11, the Rossoneri won eight of their next eleven games and they are still unbeaten in league play in 2013. M’Baye Niang, an 18-year old French prodigy, was elevated to the starting lineup in January and has exceeded all expectations with his play on the wing. Stephan El Sharaawy, Milan’s leading scorer with 16 league goals, recently inked a contract extension that will see him at the San Siro until 2018.
Thrust in a role alongside these two promising youngsters, Balotelli has carried Milan to even greater heights since his arrival. The trio should only get better as they have more training sessions and games under their belts, and as the inexperienced Niang realizes his full potential. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that in terms of pure talent, maybe only Barcelona will boast a more dangerous three-headed monster in front of goal next season.
More importantly, the hype surrounding Europe’s second-most decorated team is back alive and well. Armed with a well-organized defense and midfield, mountains of confidence and a coach who once again has the support of the fans, Milan could be fully unleashed on the Champions League next season.
Let’s not forget, Milan was just one half away from miraculously ousting Barcelona in the Champions League this season. Had Niang’s break-away attempt gone just an inch to the right of the post, who’s to say Allegri's men wouldn’t have hung on in the Camp Nou for the monumental upset?
Which brings us back to Balotelli, who couldn’t be on the roster for those games due to being cup-tied with Manchester City. The revisionist historians will argue that his physical presence up front could have made the difference against the Catalans. Who knows, maybe Balotelli buries that shot into the bottom left corner.
As it stands, Europe will have to wait until next season to see how great Milan can really be with Balotelli in the lineup. Will Milan’s renaissance continue, or will the Balotelli pendulum swing back the other way and draw the ire of teammates and fans as it did in Manchester?
If you believe the man himself, Milan won’t have to deal with the constant headaches that eventually led to his Manchester City exit.
''I have been changing for a while, it's just that before you couldn't see the improvements,” Balotelli said last week, “I've matured, I'm growing. I'm not 17 anymore, with experience you grow.''
After the Palermo win, Allegri said, “Mario has blended in very well. He is an excellent professional and wants to improve. This is his chance to show his exceptional talent.”
An excellent professional? Is this the same Mario?
No. But it’s no longer the same Milan, either.