“Milan have given up on trying to deal with Balotelli. The only one benefiting from the situation is Balotelli’s bank account,” Italian pundit Giancarlo Marocchi told media following Milan’s 2-0 loss to Roma, a game in which Mario Balotelli featured but you’d be forgiven for not knowing.
Marocchi’s view is one that is shared by an increasing section of Italian media and football fans around the peninsula, representing a growing impatience with Balotelli’s mannerisms, mood and performance.
The calls for patience from Balotelli supporters grow quieter, often greeted with rolled eyes and elongated sighs – at 23, can Mario Balotelli still be considered a ‘prospect’?
Although a phenomenon, Lionel Messi was a Ballon d’Or winner at 22, while Cesc Fabregas captained Arsenal at the same age. In the modern game where 17, 18 and 19-year-old players are breaking into the first teams of huge clubs around the world with maturity and ethic, 23 now brings with it a different connotation. This trend means that Balotelli, who once may have protected by his age until at least 25 – is now left exposed by the exploits of his generation.
Following the criticism levelled at Balotelli following his performance against Roma that saw the forward replaced with nearly 30 minutes remaining, having not taken a shot in the previous 60, the striker’s outburst in the Sky Sport Italia studio has turned concerns over his attitude into genuine arguments against his selection for the Italian national team for the summer’s World Cup.
Reports are growing that Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli is considering a ‘Plan B’ in light of Balotelli’s recent actions in case the forward isn’t selected for the trip to Brazil, which includes - rather ironically - placing Antonio Cassano as a ‘false 9’ in the forward’s stead and surrounding the 31-year-old with wide attackers, a tactical reshuffle from the Giuseppe Rossi-Balotelli partnership that was considered cast-iron first choice in previous months.
The striker’s work-ethic has been openly criticised as has the forward’s attitude and maturity, but is the vitriol directed at the controversial striker still mainly based on reputation?
With 14 goals and five assists in 23 Serie A games, Balotelli’s strike-rate is better than a goal every other game, the same amount as Juventus striker Fernando Llorente, whose goal tally also came in more games, 26, along with fewer assists, three.
Ill-discipline is another item of discussion with the young striker, yet the forward has only picked up three yellow cards since Clarence Seedorf’s appointment as head Coach, a period that has also brought no red cards, eight goals and two assists in 16 games.
Balotelli is expected to carry the worst Milan side in the Silvio Berlusconi era, respond to constant criticism from pundits and sometimes racial insults from opposing fans. Balotelli didn’t take a shot against Roma on Friday night, but Milan didn’t have over 40 per cent possession either. As talented as he is, Balotelli can’t play several positions at once.
If Milan have indeed ‘given up’ on Mario Balotelli, then they do so at their own peril. To let go of Balotelli would be to let a talent of immeasurable size leave a club where talent is at a thinner premium than at any point in its recent history. Meanwhile, Italy would leave a man whose goals sent the Azzurri to a Euro 2012 final at home, while trusting a 31-year-old forward with an even longer history of fall-outs and wasted talent than Balotelli lead the Azzurri line?
Despite the recent polemics, Balotelli’s reign as the most talented striker available to Italy remains indisputable. What is additionally indisputable is that it is still not known what Balotelli can achieve when surrounded by talent as the focal point of a side’s attack.
We still really don’t know whether Mario Balotelli is worth ‘dealing with’. Cesare Prandelli would be wise to find out in summer.