Mario Balotelli is headed back to Milan on a season-long loan, but Ben Lyttleton says to proceed with caution before expecting a magical resurgence.
Mario Sconcerti had it right all along. The columnist for Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport summed up Mario Balotelli with the line: “He has an unusual talent for making people happy when he arrives and even happier when he leaves.”
And so on Tuesday, Balotelli passed a medical at AC Milan and will spend the next year on loan at the club he supported as a boy (the club's official announcement is expected later in the day). At Liverpool, where they did even not seem that happy when he arrived–coach Brendan Rodgers called it “a calculated gamble" at the time, hardly a ringing endorsement–his departure can only be described as a coup. The player who cost Liverpool £16 million scored one Premier League goal in his one season. In all competitions, his tally was four goals in 28 games.
The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that the team who signed him is one that has already struggled to handle the Balotelli enigma. One English commentator wondered if the AC in Milan’s name stood for "Absolutely Crazy." But Balotelli did quite well when he was at Milan. He scored 26 goals in 43 league games (30 in 54 in all), though there were a few incidents along the way. Like the time he cried on the bench because he didn't score against Napoli (and therefore couldn't dedicate a goal to his daughter) or his live row with TV interviewer, and former Juventus player, Giancarlo Marocchi. He once missed a game with flu but did the Ice Bucket Challenge the next day–hardly criminal, but not that sensible either.
Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani said before this deal went through: “We are convinced that if he returns to us it’s absolutely his last chance and he understands that. Certain loves don't finish... they return. The president and I are romantic people.”
And that’s the thing about Balotelli and this deal in particular. It’s a decision clearly taken by the heart, not the head. Who would rationally look at Balotelli’s recent performances and want him? And how many last chances can he get?
“At his age, if Balotelli fails at Liverpool, his career at an elite level is over,” said his agent Mino Raiola 12 months ago. “It is all or nothing. There cannot be any excuses.”
Balotelli is 25. He should be at his peak. Instead he reportedly refused to take part in certain training exercises at Liverpool and would be the guy no one wanted in the five-a-side team because he never ran.
Liverpool spent £16 million last year in a strange transfer window in which Radamel Falcao cost United £20 million for a one-year loan, Ross McCormack joined Fulham from Leeds for £11 million and Shane Long cost Southampton £12 million. As it turned out, all three represented better value than Balotelli. The Italian has another chance, but it can’t be much longer before clubs from Russia, China and the Middle East will overtake teams from Europe’s big-five leagues in wanting him.
He played as a lone forward in his season at Milan under Max Allegri and Clarence Seedorf, but can expect a different role with new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic. For a start, the Allegri era was one of austerity: the team had sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, while Kaka and Robinho were off the payroll. This time around, thanks to investment from a consortium that has bought 48% of the club, there is more money. Milan spent over €20 million on teenage center back Alessio Romagnoli and another €38 million on Carlos Bacca (from Sevilla) and Luiz Adriano (from Shakhtar Donetsk).
Where will Balotelli fit in among them? A third center forward when the club didn't even need two new ones?
Maybe he will play as a No. 10, behind the front two. He likes to drop deep and be involved in the play, and one of Milan’s issues in its opening-game defeat at Fiorentina was the lack of service to the new strike force. Or maybe he will be used from the bench as an impact sub. But what impact can he make?
In his last spell in Italy, one Italian paper claimed he made 788 headlines in 568 days. The latest in England surrounded his new Puma boots, embroidered with "Why Always Me?" on the side and with a black-haired Mohican down the heel. No wonder Sconcerti’s words on Balotelli are now taken with a pinch of salt.
Balotelli is saying the right things upon his return, telling AC Milan's website: "I am happy to be back. I don't have much to say because I just need to train and prove myself. Physically I am fit, but I need to train with the squad. I am very motivated but I need to work hard and talk less. I always hoped I would return to Milan, the club hold a special place in my heart. Do I want to end my career here? I just want to get back to work and have a good season, I have to work, and that is it."
But are they happy at Milan to have him? It’s more like guarded caution. Let’s wait and see. There is no loan fee involved, and the club is only paying a portion of his (reduced) wages. The financial risk is not huge.
The fans’ view is a different matter entirely. Some of them had it in for Balotelli and blamed him for Milan's poor 2013-14 season, when Milan finished in eighth place. At the start of this summer, there was talk that Ibrahimovic might come back to the club. Instead, the Rossoneri are reunited with another former player. You can see why there is not quite the same enthusiasm.