Pitchside Europe

All Italian eyes rest on Balotelli

Do spare a thought for Giampaolo Pazzini. After scoring twice in a 2-1 win against Bologna on January 20, 2013, the Milan striker was promised by chief executive Adriano Galliani that there were no plans to bring in a rival in the transfer window. One can only imagine then his reaction to La Gazzetta dello Sport's front page last Wednesday, which declared that "Balo is back," the Photoshopped red of his 'crest' haircut signifying he'd joined Milan from Manchester City.

Conscious that he hadn't kept his word, Galliani picked up the phone to call Pazzini. He reassured Milan's second top scorer this season with 10 goals that he was still an important player for the team. At least, he'd get to play against Barcelona later this month with Balotelli cup-tied in the Champions League.

There was always Sunday night, too, right? Because amid the clamour for Balotelli to make his debut in a red and black shirt on Udinese's visit to San Siro, initial tests at MilanLab had revealed that he was lacking match fitness. After all, he hadn't played a full competitive 90 minutes since City's 2-0 win at Wigan on November 28. Coach Massimiliano Allegri would leave him on the bench. Pazzini would start.

That was the plan. Only it was to go awry in the warm-up. Pazzini pulled a muscle. He was out. Balotelli was in. And the rest, they say, is history.

A pair of goals on his debut, including a controversially awarded penalty in added-time, which Balotelli dispatched with the coolness you'd expect of a player who had never missed from the spot in 11 previous attempts for Inter, City and Italy, sealed a precious 2-1 win.

It was a historic moment. Only five other Milan players - Angelo Bollano in 1941, Renzo Burini in 1948, Juan Alberto Schiaffino in 1954, Giancarlo Danova in 1958 and Dejan Savicevic in 1992 - have ever scored a brace on their first appearance for the club. Balotelli had somehow met if not exceeded expectation.The hype, for now, was justified.

President Silvio Berlusconi revealed he hadn't been able to get to sleep after watching his new signing's goals. Balotelli couldn't either, reportedly paying a visit to his favourite Milan night spot, Old Fashion, to see a friend who does the club's PR before heading back to Brescia and the family home.

Why wouldn't you stay awake when, as Galliani had said last Wednesday on the tarmac at Malpensa where Balotelli had just disembarked a private jet from Manchester, this was a "dream come true." "I'd wanted to play for Milan for a long time," Balotelli smiled, a red and black scarf draped around his neck. "Obviously I played for other teams and I couldn't come. But when there was the chance, I ran."

The nine-year-old Balotelli, we're told, celebrated when Milan won the Scudetto under Alberto Zaccheroni in 1999. While on a hospital visit to perk up some sick children a decade later, Balotelli, by then at Inter, was asked who he supported and replied: "Milan. Didn't you know?" On one occasion he turned up to training at Inter's Appiano Gentile training ground wearing a pair of red and black socks. Marco Materazzi took the scissors to them. And on more than one occasion, he'd be seen at San Siro as a spectator when Milan were playing.

Following all this, Valerio Staffelli, the presenter of satirical show Striscia la Notizia, famously tracked Balotelli down to a cafe in 2010. It was just a few days after Inter had played Barcelona and he'd caused outrage by throwing his blue and black shirt to the ground. Staffelli presented him with a red and black one instead with his name and number on the back. Balotelli refused to wear it at first but then, thinking that the cameras had been switched off, pulled it on.

Even though Milan thought they'd maybe missed their only chance to get him when they were beaten to his signature by Inter in 2006 despite their having a special relationship with his then club Lumezzane to whom they had loaned a number of players including the now Juventus striker Alessandro Matri, there was still a certain inevitability that Balotelli's wish "that one day I will play for Milan" would be realised.

That it was, however, shouldn't be taken for granted. As Galliani insisted at the player's unveiling at San Siro last Friday, he absolutely meant it when he said there was a 99.5 per cent chance the move wouldn't happen. He wasn't being superstitious. "It was one of the most complicated negotiations of my life," Galliani said.

On the one hand, Balotelli was supposedly far too expensive. His agent Mino Raiola had said: "No Italian club can afford him. Balotelli is as valuable as the Mona Lisa. And City have been very clear - they don't want to sell." On the other, he wasn't wanted by Milan's owner. Berlusconi had called Balotelli "a rotten apple", a comment for which he later apologised, warning that "if you put him in a group then he will also poison the others."

Things would change, however, and dramatically so. Galliani, with a little help from Raiola, who had helped him broker Robinho's transfer from the Etihad to San Siro, got City to slash their asking price for Balotelli from €37m to €20m. Berlusconi, running for office yet again ahead of a general election which falls on the weekend of the Milan derby, saw an opportunity too.

Il Corriere della Sera claimed that, as part of his political strategy, Berlusconi had commissioned a poll to show the impact on his support after Milan sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain. They revealed he risked losing 20-25 per cent of the Milan fans who had previously backed his Popolo della Liberta party at the ballot box, a figure that apparently translates to at least half a million votes. Buying Balotelli, the cynics, including the Inter president Massimo Moratti said, and Berlusconi denied, was an attempt to win them back.

It was of course a coup in so many ways. Raiola, a man not averse to hyperbole, claimed that by leaving City and joining Milan, Balotelli had made "the value of the Premier League diminish by 50 per cent and that of Serie A rise by 50 per cent."

There's self-interest in that and it goes without saying that it should be taken with more than a pinch salt. Maybe a camouflage Bentley full. Yet Balotelli's homecoming is especially welcome in light of so many star players leaving Italy, from Ibrahimovic in the summer to Wesley Sneijder in the winter. His return means it will hopefully still grab the attention of a wider audience, although reports of Balotelli's No.45 shirt selling at a rate of 40 per hour were checked in a certain respect by the sight of San Siro still being only half full for his debut.

Interest in how this turns out, however, is, as you'd expect, the focus of discussion in Italy at the moment and will be for some time to come. The €20m question everyone wants answering is of course the same as always: will Balotelli realise his potential and become the world-class player he threatened to be after that barnstorming performance against Germany at Euro 2012?

Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport last week, a sad-to-say-goodbye Roberto Mancini reiterated his belief that "[Mario] can get to the levels of people like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo." As one columnist argued though, "at Balotelli's age [22], Messi had already won a Ballon d'Or. In August, Mario will turn 23, the age that Cristiano Ronaldo was when he won his Ballon d'Or."

To some, even though he's still so young, this is his last chance. To others this is his first opportunity. Because unlike at Inter when he was behind Ibrahimovic, then Diego Milito and Samuel Eto'o in the pecking order and at City when he had Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero ahead of him, at Milan, by contrast, Balotelli is for once the leading man, complementing rather than competing with M'Baye Niang and, in particular, current top scorer Stephan El Shaarawy in a front line which has an average age of just 20.

It's hoped that with this responsibility and the greater playing time, football's "Peter Pan" will finally grow up. As Prandelli says, "it all depends on him." No one is more thrilled than the Italy coach that Balotelli is back in Serie A, not least because back in November he put him together with El Shaarawy up front in a friendly against France in Parma. That partnership is now consolidated at club level and the understanding between them, touch wood, will flourish to the benefit of the Azzurri ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Balotelli and El Shaarawy will start in Wednesday's friendly with the Netherlands in Amsterdam before returning to Milan who have now won eight of their last 10 games in Serie A, moving up to fifth place in the table level with Inter, who they trailed by as many as 11 points back in October.

Occupying the third and final Champions League spot, Lazio who've suffered back-to-back defeats and will be without top scorer Miroslav Klose for the next two months after he picked up an injury, are only three points ahead of them. Lazio losing a striker and Milan gaining one might prove the difference. Still it's not as though scoring goals has been their problem this season, it's been keeping them out in the absence of Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva.

Anyway, a €300k bonus is said to have been included in Balotelli's contract should he help the club qualify for the Champions League once again, something that seemed impossible not so long ago. Crucial to that could be the derby against former club Inter on February 24. When asked if he would celebrate a goal, Balotelli replied, "sure", although not, it must be said, with any malice. Even so, imagine that. God forbid it should come under the Curva Nord. Pencil the date in your diary. It certainly promises to be one of the events of the season.

James Horncastle