Mario Balotelli was greeted with open arms at Milan’s Malpensa airport today. The 22-year-old returned to his native Italy following an eventful spell with Manchester City, in which he divided opinion and never truly fulfilled his potential. AC Milan welcome a player who can greatly benefit their hunt for a place in the Champions League, but only several days ago a switch to the peninsula looked virtually impossible.
The Rossoneri have pushed for youthful renewal throughout the January transfer window, with several fresh-faced targets set out. However, Vice-President Adriano Galliani continued to pursue Kaká and Didier Drogba. The Real Madrid playmaker looked to be the realistic option, but a return for the Brazilian soon fell by the wayside due to “fiscal reasons” – and the hunt for Balotelli opened up once more.
The credentials of the striker’s agent Mino Raiola have never been doubted in Italy. The former restaurateur brokered several transfers for Zlatan Ibrahimović for compromised prices, and is unanimously loved by his clients and loathed by club directors for his methods. The agent acted as a delegate for the outfit, and knocked the Citizen’s asking price in half in the space of two weeks.
Following several days of deadlock in which City refused to budge from the €25m mark, an agreement was struck overnight on Monday. Milan will pay €20m and additional bonuses surmounting to €3m for Balotelli, with the player signing a contract until 2017 with the Serie A giants. The Brescia native also had to make sacrifices to join his boyhood club, and looks set to take a significant paycut.
“As soon as I got the chance, I ran to Milan,” admitted Balotelli ahead of his medical in Busto Arsizio. The striker has always been a supporter of the club, and was pictured wearing their colours on several occasions while under contract with city rivals Internazionale. “He wore black and red socks to training,” revealed former teammate Marco Materazzi. “I would personally cut them in half every time!”
Milan currently hover in fifth and directly behind Inter, but have sliced the gap between themselves and the Champions League places in half with a quiet resurgence of late. Manager Massimiliano Allegri has settled on a concrete system, after his tinkering earlier in the campaign cost them dearly. The San Siro residents have only picked up one defeat in their last 10 games in Serie A as a result.
Balotelli has only netted once for Roberto Mancini’s side throughout the current campaign, and has often times been relegated to the bench. Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez have been the preferred partnership, while Edin Džeko has been the alternative option. His breathtaking performances for the Italian national team at the European Championships in June have not been showcased since.
The argument for Milan’s end is that with consistent playing time Balotelli will return to his heights, and hopefully settle his problematic personal life too. Cesare Prandelli managed to get the best out of him in the summer, and although Mancini has been refereed to as his preferred boss their relationship has been complicated at best. Allegri may just have the right attitude to reinvigorate him.
However, the arrival of Balotelli may cause the Tuscan tactician several unnecessary headaches. The forward trio of Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Pazzini and M’Baye Niang has been in devastating form of late. El Shaarawy is presently the club’s top goal scorer and assist provider domestically, while Niang has been a revelation on the right wing in recent weeks with his direct edge.
The former Inter man would therefore be taking the place of central striker Pazzini, who has scored three goals in as many games since the return of action following the winter break. Furthermore, the Atalanta product was “promised” that another attacker would not be purchased in January to facilitate his presence upfront. Balotelli may also have to contend with inconsistent performers Bojan Krkić and Robinho.
The Rossoneri faithful will be satisfied that the management have ultimately stuck to their guns with the youth project, despite the fact signing a defender should have been a bigger priority. Balotelli no longer has any excuses for his erratic displays, and must perform, not only to justify the hype that has surrounded him since an unsuccessful trial for Barcelona in 2006, but also to carry his beloved club.