Why Mummy's Boy Balotelli Will Thrive At AC Milan

Away from the English tabloid glaze and back with his loving family and mum's home cooking, watch Super Mario flourish at Milan.
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Away from the English tabloid glaze and back with his loving family and mum's home cooking, watch Super Mario flourish at Milan.

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It took all of 25 minutes for AC Milan’s new signing to evoke memories of Zlatan Ibrahimovic did during his seasons in Italy, with Balotelli netting a brace of goals on his debut against Udinese at the weekend.

Ibra’s return to the Italian game drove Milan towards the title and although this season they are well off the pace set by Juventus and Napoli at the top of the table following a rebuilding of the first-team, there is no doubt that Silvio Berlusconi’s club are set to be a force once more.

Dear old Silvio and his loyal right-hand man Adriano Galliani had been pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes when they claimed they would not sign and could not afford to wrest Balotelli away from Manchester City. Berlusconi even went as far to call the player a “rotten apple” – a comment he was already backtracking on when it became clear that the unthinkable was going to happen and Milan were actually going to get their man.

Milan are a club whose biggest star happens to be their owner and down through the years have seen some of the greatest names in the game wear the famous red and black shirt: Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, George Weah, Ricky Kakà, Andriy Shevchenko, Ronaldinho and the aforementioned Ibrahimovic - not to mention homegrown talents such Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.

Star quality and strong personalities go hand and hand with the old Devil and the club knows how to handle them, well, apart from Ronaldinho, but when the Brazilian’s partying way saw his on-field form suffered he was swiftly moved on. The same fate befell Antonio Cassano whose outspoken criticism of Galliani’s transfer policy when Ibra and Thiago Silva were sold to PSG saw him shipped off to Inter so Balotelli is at a club with all the glamour but with no tolerance for any diva behaviour.

And then of course back in the bosom of his family and in familiar surroundings where he can enjoy a decent bowl of pasta, park his Ferrari wherever he wants without worry of a parking ticket and once February passes, enjoy an endless summer, Super Mario should thrive and become the sort of genuine match-changer in a manner that was only very rarely seen in the Premier League.

What was immediate on his arrival was how relaxed Mario was and how excited he actually seemed to be to have joined the club he had made no secret of supporting as a youngster and continued to do so even when he was at Inter where reportedly he once sang the Milan club anthem in the dressing room. He is also at a club where as far as the forward line goes he is not only the biggest star but the most experienced player - if you take Giampaolo Pazzini out of the equation - at 22. Stephan El Shaarawy is 20 and M’Baye Niang has just turned 18.

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The pair certainly seem to be in awe of Balotelli and have even gone as far as copying his dress sense and distinctive spiky, mohawk hair-cut, earning the trio the instant moniker “The Crests”. Milan also have a coach in Massimiliano Allegri who has remained true to his attacking instincts. After the majority of the old guard left in the summer , he has introduced a policy where seniority is no guarantee of a starting place. What Allegri is looking for are leaders and there is room in the dressing room for the poacher to turn game keeper or, in Balotelli’s case, the so-called maverick to take professional responsibility.

There will be no arm around the shoulder from the coach who is only focused on what the player does once he steps on to the training pitch and from there into the team line-up. The vastly experienced and highly decorated Mauro Tassotti is the man whom the young players look up to: Serie A titles and European Cups in the all-conquering Arrigo Sacchi side gains you instant respect and he may have a quiet word now and then. All other matters will fall under the remit of Galliani who has done a good job dealing with Berlusconi for the last 26 years so he should have no problems keeping Balo in check.

There are temptations aplenty in Milan for any footballer but there is the code of Omertà where a player’s nocturnal wanderings are kept very firmly out of the public domain.  The concept of bella figura – putting on a good show and not looking a fool – runs deep in Italian society, so the social norms are more in keeping with what is still a very conservative country. The local press is less intrusive and even state broadcaster RAI were given short shrift when they attempted to get a rise out of Balotelli at his presentation press conference when they brought up the matter of those “rotten apples”. In fact, the player has demonstrated a mature approach so far, claiming that he would rather be judged on what he does on the pitch as a real reflection of who he is.

The early indicators could not have been better, with that sensational  introduction on Sunday despite only having five minutes to warm-up following Pazzini’s pre-game injury, against some robust defending where he didn’t bat an eyelid, but rather got back onto his feet and on with the game. More than anything it was the star quality and charisma that he brought to the match that stood out. It is clear that the team will be build around his shining light, with El Shaarawy and Niang no doubt growing in confidence to form what can be Milan’s attack for the next eight to ten years. With eager runners along either flank, Balotelli thrived through the middle and much as Ibrahimovic once did dropped deep to collect the ball to enable the midfielders to run beyond the advancing defenders.

Italian opponents will of course be studying how to nullify him but at least it is the sort of attention that he should find easier to handle than what has gone before.