Mario Balotelli out to prove plenty wrong with move to Nice
PARIS (AP) — Mario Balotelli may lose count when he adds up the number of people he has to prove wrong this season.
Among them, a former Liverpool stalwart who openly mocked the controversial striker's move to French side Nice.
It is nearly one year since Balotelli scored a league goal, embarrassing for someone who once talked himself up as a Golden Ball winner.
If selected on Sunday, he will look to end his drought in the home match against bitter southern rival Marseille, although Nice coach Lucien Favre is unsure whether he is ready.
“Things are going very well but we'll see if he plays,” Favre said Friday at a pre-match news conference. “He's very positive, he's listening.”
Nice is Balotelli's smallest club in a stop-start career that saw him grab headlines as a mesmerizing 17-year-old for Inter Milan.
Pace, power, poise, skill, heading ability, strength back to goal and composure: Balotelli had absolutely everything.
“Balotelli is like Russian roulette,” said Marseille defender Rod Fanni, who could face him on Sunday. “Everything's good if his head's in the right place, everything wrong if his mind is elsewhere.”
In recent years, Balotelli's antics off the field have become his trademark, not his performances.
Since his last league goal—for AC Milan against Udinese on Sept. 22—the 26-year-old Italian has netted only twice in the Italian Cup against third-division Alessandri.
There have been some highs, however.
In one of his best games for Manchester City he looked unstoppable when scoring the first two goals in a 6-1 hammering of Manchester United in October, 2011. On the final day of that season, in arguably the most telling contribution of his club career, his wonderfully composed pass set up Sergio Aguero's last-gasp winner against Queens Park Rangers—clinching the title and depriving United of it.
Within two months, Italy reached the final of the 2012 European Championship, with Balotelli scoring both in the 2-1 semifinal win against Germany. That season is arguably when he peaked — sad considering he was 21.
Although he did well for Milan over the next two seasons, with a good return of 26 league goals in 43 games, he plummeted after joining Liverpool as a replacement for Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez in the summer of 2014.
Over the past two seasons, he has mustered two league goals–one in 16 games for Liverpool and a terrible return of one in 20 when loaned back to Milan. It seemed normal when former Italy coach Antonio Conte left him out of his Euro 2016 squad.
Hardly the stuff of a Golden Ball contender, which was not lost on former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher. He derided Balotelli's move to Nice, saying on Twitter that a free transfer was still “over the odds.”
Carragher's sarcasm aside, one fact is hard to ignore: Balotelli is entering what should be his peak years at a mediocre French club.
“Ending up there, given all the clubs he could have played for … it must have hurt his pride,” Fanni said.
Liverpool, Milan and city-rival Inter have won 15 European Cups between them, but Nice won the last of its four league titles in 1959 and its last trophy was the French Cup in 1997. Stars like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Suarez have graced Milan's clubs and Liverpool.
The biggest name to play for Nice is Frenchman Just Fontaine—the record scorer for a single edition of the World Cup with 13 goals—and that was 60 years ago.
Whether Balotelli can grab the spotlight in Nice—for the right reasons—is a very big question.
“He has a lot of rebuilding to do, physically but also in terms of the runs he makes, his movement,” Favre said. “He hasn't played in friendly games and it's a long time since he played a match.”