“Balotelli is super,” hailed Tuttosport on Monday. “Balotelli is unique,” read Corriere dello Sport. And atop an image of the man of the hour blowing kisses to the San Siro, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s self-explanatory mash-up: “CicloneBalo.”
It was a debut that could hardly have gone more according to script—something that in itself was surprising, given how Balotelli is typically one writing his own draft. But if Sunday’s performance is any sort of indication (at this point still a big “if”) we may end up seeing more of Balotelli the wizard-goalscorer than Balotelli the enigmatic sulk going forward.
In other words, now that he’s back in Italy and playing football 50 miles from where he grew up, Balotelli may just replace the joy he once took in riling the straight-laced, puritanical English football establishment with scoring goals.
Even his post-match comments following the two-goal debut revealed a different man than Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini and the beat writers who covered the Premier League club had come to know and detest.
“I’m happy it turned out like that,” he told Sky Italia. “I put in a good performance. We are strong in attack, even if I haven’t played much and feel my legs are heavy. I must work to improve my fitness levels.”
“Mario is happy to be at Milan,” he said. “I’ve never seen him so happy in his career.”
Of course, many who have followed the 22-year-old’s tumultuous six years in top-level professional football will no doubt be skeptical of the forward’s ability to contain his mischievous side, and of Milan’s chances of reining him in.
And it begs the question: how can the Rossoneri get the best out of a much-talented player who delights in playing, and living, on the edge?
For starters, they can offer home comforts.
Balotelli spent his formative years in nearby Brescia, and his adoptive parents still live in the area. It was here that he became a Milan supporter as a boy; it was here that he took his Italian citizenship more than four years ago. He signed his first professional contract for nearby Lumezzane.
While at City he often and quite publicly courted the idea of returning to Milan, and it wasn’t an act. If there is anywhere on earth Balotelli can be himself, it is here.
AC Milan will cater to his footballing needs as well, and on Sunday they offered a glimpse of just how they will go about it.
When Balotelli was inserted into the starting lineup ahead of kickoff, replacing the injured Giampaolo Pazzini, he slotted into a forward position between prospect M’Baye Niang and the in-form Stephan El Shaarawy. The result was a flexible 4-3-3 formation, and the trio of attackers frequently switched positions as the game wore on.
This was an intentional strategy on Milan’s part, and when club vice-president Adriano Galliani likened his side’s setup to that of Barcelona’s after the final whistle, he didn’t sound as ridiculous as he might have in other circumstances.
“This attack reminds me of Barcelona,” he told Milan Channel. “We don’t have Lionel Messi, but we have Balotelli.”
Indeed, it was in the “Messi role,” the “false nine” position, that Balotelli operated much of the night. And with the 18-year-old Niang on one side and the 20-year-old El Shaarawy on the other, we caught a glimpse of how this freshened Milan side intends to set itself up.
And it all centres around Balotelli.
“We’ve changed the skin of Milan,” said Galliani. "We’ve understood that an era has come to an end. We are back.”