Mario Balotelli has returned to the Italy squad for the first time in four years under Roberto Mancini. Ahead of their Nations League games against Poland and Portugal, both live on Sky Sports, we examine how he has turned things around – and whether it will last…
Mario Balotelli’s stock was low back in the summer of 2016. The striker’s frequent misdemeanours had been offset by thrilling performances during his younger years, but after just two league goals in his last two seasons with Liverpool and AC Milan, a career that once promised so much appeared to be drifting in the wrong direction.
Italy vs Poland
September 7, 2018, 7:40pm
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Two years on, however, and Balotelli is looking up again. The 28-year-old has rekindled his career at Nice following his departure from Liverpool, and Roberto Mancini, his old mentor at Manchester City, has rewarded him with a recall to the Italy fold. Here, we look at how football’s enfant terrible turned it all around.
The return to form
“We are very pleased to welcome Mario,” said Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere back in August 2016. “We hope that Nice, in a family atmosphere, will help him rediscover his joy for the game. We both know that nothing will be easy but with the desire and support of all our fans, we’ll help him to flourish and bring his talent to the service of the team.”
Balotelli, for his part, insisted he was “not a gamble at all” and put his struggles over the previous two seasons down to injury problems, but the scepticism which greeted the transfer was justified. It was only a year earlier, after all, that AC Milan had been so concerned by his reputation that they insisted on including a good behaviour clause in his loan deal.
Out on the pitch, though, Balotelli soon set about silencing his doubters. He marked his debut with two goals in a dramatic 3-2 win over Marseille, afterwards claiming it was not too late for him to win the Ballon d’Or, and there were more to come. By the end of the campaign, he had netted 17 times in 28 games, helping Nice to their highest Ligue 1 finish in decades.
Balotelli duly signed a one-year contract extension at Nice but his second season started in inauspicious style as he failed to impress in a Champions League qualifying play-off defeat to Napoli. “Mario did not play well and I should’ve replaced him earlier,” said manager Lucien Favre. “I call it the way I see it, he wasn’t good enough tonight.”
The old Balotelli might have reacted poorly to that criticism but instead he got straight back on track, scoring twice in a 4-0 win over Monaco in his next Ligue 1 appearance to kick-start what turned out to be the most prolific campaign of his career. By the end of it, there had been 26 goals in 38 games. “I’ve found a player who is really focused,” said Favre, “even during training.”
Balotelli looked sharper and deadlier than at any point in the previous four years and it seemed he was learning to curb his temper too. The Italian had received three red cards in his first season at the Allianz Riviera; he was only shown one in his second. Balotelli says he matured with the birth of his second child in September 2017. It seems he is right.
The Italy recall
Recalling Balotelli was one of Mancini’s first actions when he took the Italy job in May. The pair had a rocky relationship during their time together at City – almost coming to blows during one training session in 2013 – but Balotelli rates the 53-year-old as the best coach he has ever had and the admiration is mutual.
For Mancini’s first game in charge, a friendly with Saudi Arabia in Switzerland, Balotelli was thrown straight into Italy’s starting line-up, and with just 21 minutes on the clock, he scored a superb long-range goal to put them in front. “I would say it was a positive display,” said Mancini afterwards.
Balotelli kept his place in the team against France a few days later, and despite the game ending in a 3-1 defeat, there was more praise from the man in the dugout. “He played well,” said Mancini. “He’s a player who can do even better because he has talent and is still very young, but he did better tonight than against Saudi Arabia, and that’s important for us.”
The complicated summer
Balotelli was back in the international picture but at club level his future was uncertain. In fact, his agent, Mino Raiola, had been talking up the prospect of a move since March.
“I’m already negotiating with many clubs in England and Italy,” said Raiola. “Mario is ready to return. He’s matured and he’s one of the top ten forwards in the world, and he’s the number one in Italy. He’s worth 100 million euros, but he’s available on a free, so he’s a bargain.”
Nice reacted angrily to those comments, with club president Rivere insisting Balotelli would not leave for nothing, but his contract was up and it seemed his head had been turned. Raiola insisted he could walk into any of the top sides in England or Italy but in the end it was Marseille who emerged as his biggest suitor.
The saga threatened to drag on all summer, with Balotelli even refusing to show up for pre-season training at Nice, but he eventually opted to stay at the club for a third season, with Rivere claiming Marseille had failed to get a deal over the line. Balotelli also rejected a lucrative offer from China.
Portugal vs Italy
September 10, 2018, 7:40pm
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“Made slightly complicated at the start of the summer by another club from the South of France, the situation is now back to normal,” said a statement released by Nice. “Simple, clear. Like one of Super Mario’s strikes.”
Balotelli was suspended for Nice’s first three games of the season, watching from the sidelines as they slumped to three consecutive defeats, but there was praise from new manager Patrick Vieira – a former team-mate at Manchester City – after he returned to the side for their 1-0 win over Lyon last Friday.
“Mario Balotelli did us a lot of good,” said Vieira. “He transmitted his desire to win to his team-mates. He’s an important player for the team. Physically he’s in a good condition. He could only play 75 minutes because he’s missed the last while but those minutes were good for the group.”
His encouraging return to action for Nice bodes well for Italy’s Nations League games. Mancini’s side face Poland on Friday before their second group against Portugal on Monday. For Balotelli, they represent another opportunity to show that, two years on from that miserable summer of 2016, he is back where he belongs.
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