The familiar Mario Balotelli cycle has been completed yet again. Stuck on hard times with a team that didn’t want him and telegraphing his own unhappiness with his employers by acting out, Balotelli has been gifted another reprieve. A big club, this time his former home AC Milan, has swooped in to rescue him, believing that despite all evidence to the contrary, they will be the ones to tamp down on his antics and provide him the environment in which he will finally reach what even his biggest detractors would admit is his considerable potential.
This is the last of Balotelli’s last chances, they’ll say, and the Italian striker will nod in agreement, repeating how he’s learned from his mistakes and will put his head down and get to work. It will all sound convincing, and Balotelli will probably make Milan appear wise with a couple performances commiserate with his abilities. But there will almost certainly come a time—a month from now, a year from now, or maybe even further in the future—when Balotelli will feel slighted for some reason, or that his playing time isn’t acceptable, or that the manager isn’t treating him with the respect and deference he deserves, and he will again turn sullen and obstinate. And that’s because while there probably is a very specific situation out there where Balotelli could truly thrive, AC Milan doesn’t look like the place.
The most important thing Balotelli needs is minutes, and Milan are already stacked in the striker department. Earlier this window, the Rossoneri bought Carlos Bacca, the late-blooming stud from Sevilla, for €30 million. They also brought in Luiz Adriano from Shakhtar Donetsk for another €8 million. On top of those signings, they already have Jérémy Ménez, who isn’t a natural striker but played there very well for them last season, and the young, potential-laden M’Baye Niang.
New manager Siniša Mihajlović has started the season favoring a 4-4-2 diamond formation, which potentially affords more opportunities for Balo to get into the team. Milan started with Bacca (who is a must-start) and Luiz Adriano up top. Ménez has been out with a back injury, so in the short term Balo could be the third man behind the two starters, a position that should earn him some solid playing time. However, it’s not clear whether Balo would be content with this role, especially sitting behind a smaller name (but as-of-late better player) like Luiz Adriano. Then, when Ménez comes back and regains his position alongside Bacca, Balotelli’s potential minutes would drop even further. And none of that takes into account the fact that Milan hasn’t looked particularly good in that formation, and may revert to a single-striker alignment going forward. There really isn’t any more room for Balo at Milan than there was for him at Liverpool.
Mihajlović offers other problems, as well. He and Balotelli know each other from their days at Inter, when Mihajlović was an assistant there, and the two reportedly discussed the move before everything was officially set in motion. There has to be some level of respect there or else this never would’ve gotten this far. Then again, we’ve already seen Balo wear out his welcome with coaches who trusted and believed in him, like Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli. On top of that, Mihajlović is a famous disciplinarian who probably won’t take Balotelli’s trademark shenanigans lightly. Balo’s fallen out with player-first coaches and strict dictator-types before, so it’s uncertain whether there’s a specific type of management he responds best to. In any case, these two could clash very quickly if things don’t go right early.
Balotelli remains a frustrating case. We all love the levity and wackiness his hijinks bring to the game, and very little of the things he does are actually harmful. And in his pomp, it’s immediately clear why so many teams have put up with him, tantalized by the moments of effortless greatness. Anyone who loves the sport and the its colorful personalities wants Balotelli to succeed.
There comes a point, though, when you have to admit that there is something wrong with how he’s gone about his career thus far. As good as he can be at times, he’s never put together more than a few great games at his peak. His casual attitude in practice, bust ups with coaches and fellow players, and everything else that goes along with Mario being Mario has to have played a role in his on-field disappointments. He needs to change, or else this really could be his last opportunity to prove himself on the game’s biggest stages. The odds of Balotelli finding his happy place back with AC Milan don’t look high, but I’m rooting for it nonetheless.
Photo via AP