When Mario Balotelli left Manchester City to sign for AC Milan, it seemed like he had finally found his spiritual home. Although he made his name initially as a youngster with Inter Milan, Balotelli was known to be a Milan fan, even to the extent of being spotted wearing a Milan shirt while still a player with Inter writes Ben Holmes.
Of course, this ‘jokey’ snap went down like a lead balloon with Inter fans and to be truthful, there weren’t too many tears shed when Balotelli followed former manager Roberto Mancini out of the door to England to sign for Manchester City.
After a couple of eventful years in England, where Balotelli scored 20 league goals in 54 games for Manchester City, he finally appeared to seal his dream move in January 2013, when Milan opted to spend £16m on bringing him back to the San Siro, this time wearing the red and black.
He was an instant success, on the 3rd February, he scored twice on his debut, including a last minute penalty strike to earn Milan a 2-1 victory over Udinese. In that half season with Milan, Balotelli scored an impressive 12 goals in 13 games. All was going well.
In the 2013-14 season, Balotelli followed that impressive start up with 18 goals in 41 games for Milan, a total of 30 goals in 54 games. An excellent strike rate, especially in a Milan team that was nowhere near the standard of previous teams that have worn the famous shirt. As they struggled in mid-table, Balotelli’s vital goal contribution helped them avoid an even more embarrassing finish and saw him secure a place in the Italy World Cup squad.
In Brazil, it was Balotelli’s header against England which propelled Italy to their only victory in the competition before they were eliminated in the group stages. Mario returned home to Milan, with rumours of his future circulating.
At first Arsenal seemed the favourites, then Liverpool until Brendan Rodgers categorically ruled out a move for the Italian, so much so that two weeks later, Liverpool signed him for a fee of just €16m.
The English press are certainly thrilled to have Balotelli back, so are the bookmakers with the return of the ever popular Balotelli betting markets and Liverpool fans certainly seem to think they’ve got a good deal.
So what had gone wrong for Balotelli at Milan?
What seems certain is that new Milan manager, Filippo Inzaghi realised that while Balotelli was a key player for the Rossonieri, he was also one of their most saleable assets. With Milan struggling financially, selling Balotelli not only brought in cash, but removed a sizeable wage from the Milan payroll.
Inzaghi’s replacement for Balotelli was to sign misfiring Spanish striker Fernando Torres from Chelsea. The Spaniard has signed a two-year loan deal with the club, effectively ending his Chelsea career. It is not known how much Chelsea are reportedly contributing towards his £200,000 a week wages, but it is thought to be a significant amount.
Milan also signed Marco van Ginkel on loan from Chelsea in midfield and Pablo Armero the Colombian left back, has also joined on loan from Udinese (full list of AC Milan’s in’s and out’s here).
The question Rossonieri fans will be asking is whether Torres offers a significant upgrade or downgrade over Balotelli. An on form, confident Torres is certainly at least as good, if not a shade better than Balotelli, but there has been no evidence of Torres finding his best form for at least the past three seasons, perhaps longer. His move to Milan represents a chance to rediscover his best form, but then again, so did his move to Chelsea from Liverpool.
Of course, Milan still have Giampaolo Pazzini and Stephan El Shaarawy, not to mention Hachim Mastour. That’s a solid range of attacking talent, but amongst these players, there doesn’t seem to be the obvious player who is going to grab the 15-20 goals a season that Balotelli was good for, or fulfil the role in the team that he played.
Inzaghi however may be looking to spread the goals around the Milan team. Talented attacking players such as Jeremy Menez, Keisuke Honda and captain Riccardo Montolivo (when he returns from injury) will all be expected to weigh in with goals too.
Honda and Menez have already weighed in with a goal apiece this season as the Rossonieri showed some real quality in their 3-1 victory over Lazio at the San Siro last weekend. Sulley Muntari grabbing their other goal and new signing, former Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez, distinguishing himself with a fine penalty save.
That was a stark contrast to Milan’s pre-season form, especially in America, where they looked extremely poor and were well beaten by most of the teams that they faced in the tournament.
Perhaps the most enigmatic thing about Milan is that on paper, they look to have one of the strongest squads in Serie A. Perhaps only outside of Juventus, Roma and perhaps Napoli, can any other club lay claim to have such a wealth of talent at their disposal.
Yet last season’s dismal efforts must still rankle with Milan’s fans who are certainly used to far greater things. Balotelli’s departure may have hit the club hard, but the finances it freed up have allowed Milan to make some intriguing signings which may well give the club a greater strength in depth.
Certainly if Pazzini and Shaarawy can find the net on a regular basis and they are ably supported from what is a very talented group of midfielders, then Milan can score goals. Defensively, Philip Mexes has his doubters but Daniele Bonera, Ignazio Abate and Cristian Zapata are all excellent players and Armero looks a great signing for the left back role.
With Costa proving an able number one ahead of youngster Michael Agazzi, and of course the two Chelsea loanees yet to play in the first team, this promises to be a better season for Milan, even minus their talismanic striker.
For Balotelli, it is a fresh challenge at a club that has plenty of experience of dealing with a controversial, divisive, yet brilliant striker. Liverpool managed to get the very best out of Luis Suarez last season, it will be interesting to see if they can do likewise with another wayward footballing superstar.
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