Ten months ago, fans of AC Milan were aflutter.
Their club had just finalized a €22 million deal with Manchester City for the supremely talented but maddeningly mercurial Mario Balotelli. After a depressing start to the season, Massimiliano Allegri had the Rossoneri climbing steadily up the table. The addition of Balotelli was seen as a key in their drive to retain a place in the Champions League
It also allowed for the tantalizing prospect of the then 22-year-old Balotelli and the then 20-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy playing together on Milan's front line.
Despite a few flashes, that super-pairing has yet to realize its potential—and now it may never get the chance. With reports emerging that Balotelli is unsettled due to the microscope he is under in the Italian press, it is worth questioning which of the two young forwards is more important to the club.
At the moment, the answer is more difficult to come to than you might think. One or both could be sold in the not-too-distant future. At this very moment, however, the answer is Super Mario.
The difficulty in making the call between the two stems from the fact that neither of them has played a full season as a full-time starting XI forward.
Balotelli has been playing top-flight soccer since 2007 and is the top striker for the Italian national team, but at the club level he was not a regular starter until his arrival at Milan. El Shaarawy didn't play more than two top-flight games in a year until his first season with Milan in 2011-12 and faded badly after his strong start to last year's campaign.
In spite of this, the influence that Balotelli has on the play of both his own team and his opponents is immense. He is more than simply a target man. He is an excellent dribbler who can create his own openings to shoot. He's agile enough to score from freakish positions—like his standing bicycle kick at Euro 2012 against Ireland. He has a cannon for a leg that can ruthlessly bury long shots, as Manuel Neuer can attest. Just to complete a defender's nightmare, he's also a good enough passer to make his teammates threats—like Riccardo Montolivo in this international fixture.
Opposing defenses react to him out of fear. One of the reasons Balotelli seems to be in the headlines week in and week out is because he often gets kicked mercilessly as he jockeys for position in the box. A lack of successful partners up front due to injuries and ineffectiveness has teams identifying him as the one man to stop—and they collapse on him to do just that.
The difference between having Balotelli in the lineup and not having him in the lineup comes down to one thing. As they are presently constituted, a Milan without Balotelli can be defended against simply by keeping shape and not making any mistakes. A Milan with Balotelli makes things exponentially more dangerous. Even if you play him perfectly, Super Mario can pull a goal out of thin air.
There was a time last season that you might have thought that El Shaarawy could do the same. Then the calendar turned and Il farone went cold. He scored only twice in the league after the winter break, and his last goal came with three months left to play in the season.
Who is more important to Milan?
An injury has limited him to two games this season, and his top-flight experience not as broad as Balotelli, who has been part of championship teams in two countries. There is still a huge amount of potential, and El Shaarawy may yet wind up being a player that helps bring Milan out of the doldrums.
But that time isn't now. El Sha had a fantastic half-season, but the rigors of Serie A play ground him down, and he's yet to prove that he can regain that level. His teammate, on the other hand, has shown that even after extended periods off the field he can do some special things.
Right now, even with so many questions surrounding both players, Balotelli is the more important player for the Rossoneri.