Mario Balotelli arrived at Milan in January 2013, the Italian side completing a deal rumoured to be worth €20 million, and handing the Manchester City star a four-and-a-half year deal (via BBC Sport).
After struggling to adapt to the pressures of the Premier League, it seemed a return to his homeland was the ideal solution for all parties.
That feeling only continued as the former Inter striker instantly hit peak form, netting 12 goals in 13 appearances as the Rossoneri claimed an unlikely third-place finish.
In catapulting them into a Champions League berth, Balotelli had ensured the seven-time European champions would once again compete in the elite competition and earn revenue vital to his new club.
"I am very happy that we signed Balotelli and the fans ought to be too," Adriano Galliani told Sky Italia last month (h/t FootballItalia).
The vice-president added: "If the club hadn’t snapped him up last January, then Milan would not have qualified for the Champions League." And it is impossible to argue with that judgment.
Yet there is increasing concern that—particularly in the current campaign—all is not well in Super Mario World as he has been criticised repeatedly during what has been a difficult season for all at Milan.
The issues came full circle following last month’s exit from the Champions League. The Rossoneri were thoroughly outplayed by Atletico Madrid over their two-legged tie, and the Italian press singled out the 23-year-old’s performances.
"Balotelli remains switched off," read the headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport the following day, while Corriere dello Sport labelled his displays "a disaster," (via the Sky Sports website).
Winning 5-2 on aggregate, the Spanish side demolished any hope Milan had of progressing and limited the striker to just one shot on target over the 168 minutes he played across the two matches.
Those uninspired showings added to a growing feeling that Balotelli vanishes just when his team needs him the most, failing to shine in the biggest matches just when a truly quality player should come to the fore.
In games against the toughest opponents, he seems far more likely to see his name in the book rather than on the scoresheet, a fact borne out when looking closely at his contributions.
That remarkable scoring run in the second half of last season looks a little less impressive when noting that he failed to score in matches against Inter, Roma and Fiorentina, the only top-seven teams the Rossoneri faced following his arrival. That he was given a yellow card in all three encounters—and seven across his 13 appearances in total—only reinforces that belief.
It is a similar story this time around, where an initial return of 13 goals in 23 league matches thus far initially looks impressive, until recognising he has netted just two goals against the division’s top-five sides.
Again, he has been booked in five of those six games, also being sent off in September’s loss to Napoli, missing the first penalty of his career as Pepe Reina pulled off a fine save.
That game saw Milan lose to the southern club at San Siro for the first time in 27 years, and the return meeting in February would perhaps prove even more revealing. Substituted despite his team in desperate need of a goal, Balotelli would break down in tears on the bench, overwhelmed by events off the field after discovering he had become a father for the first time.
Again, La Gazzetta dello Sport would sum up the general consensus, its front page (above) asking: "Are we losing Mario?"
Away from Serie A—when the demands placed upon him to excel are even higher—his struggles have continued, netting against Ajax and Celtic but failing to score in four matches against Barcelona and Atleti.
Asked if the player was mentally immature following their continental exit, even the president of the Italian FA raised doubts over his approach, Giancarlo Abete telling a press conference that he didn’t think "the problem is related to his attitude."
The FIGC chief went on to say he felt "the problem is related to the expectation of a greater contribution in terms of his ability to affect the game."
It is often said that much of Balotelli’s personality is as a result of his environment—a man raised by white parents in the Italian countryside would so often have been the only black child at his school or on a team.
With racism still a major issue in Italy, his precocious talent was always going to take him away from his peers, meaning his feeling of being isolated was, and remains, wholly natural.
That has perhaps continued at Milan, a club no longer home to great players, which leaves him alone as the one standout star in the squad. Those former Rossoneri giants also see the lack of leadership at the club as detrimental to Balotelli’s development, Zvonimir Boban declaring to Sky Italia that "he would have carried bags for players such as Marco Van Basten, George Weah and Andriy Shevchenko." (h/t FootballItalia).
The Croatian was hugely critical of Balotelli, declaring he "doesn’t understand what wearing that shirt means," and that "he would have been slapped by people like Paolo Maldini, Marcel Desailly, Sebastiano Rossi, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi."
Others have been less scathing, Maldini himself suggesting to La Gazzetta dello Sport (via FootballItalia) that "it’s wrong to put all the blame on his shoulders."
The retired former captain went on to add that he thought the player would improve instantly if he went to Juventus, identifying the Turin side as "a team with clear ideas, a great Coach and a core group of Italian players."
But if those fears surround Balotelli at Milan, the same issues have never been prevalent for the Italian national team, the player shining brighter than ever when pulling on the Azzurri shirt.
Twenty-nine caps for his country have followed his 2010 debut, with Cesare Prandelli making the striker an integral part of his side since replacing Marcello Lippi, following the humiliating showing at the last World Cup in South Africa. With 12 goals to his name, Balotelli has repaid the faith of his coach, perhaps the one man who understands how to truly bring the best from the enigmatic star.
While Roberto Mancini tried to befriend his protege, Prandelli has been unafraid to lambast him when necessary, omitting him from the squad if he should break the rules laid down in his code of conduct.
That carrot-and-stick approach has seen the player’s very best displays come when representing his country, and none more so than in the high-pressure atmosphere of an international tournament.
Euro 2012 was something of a coming-of-age competition for the Palermo-born striker, who began by netting an important group-stage goal against the Republic of Ireland. He followed that up with a well-taken penalty in the shootout victory over England in the quarter-final before fully taking centre stage in the following round.
Two goals against an impressive Germany handed victory to Italy, with the striker undoubtedly the difference between the two sides as he turned in what could well be the single best performance of his career. Yet it is also with Italy where he is most surrounded with players able both to command his respect and support him when he most needs it, precisely as Paolo Maldini suggested.
While men with the stature of Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo exert the kind of leadership Balotelli needs, it is also others stepping up to protect him, often from his own actions. Indeed, that goal against Ireland exemplified this as Balotelli, seemingly intent on celebrating provocatively, was instantly man-handled by Leonardo Bonucci.
"Unfortunately, he does stupid things … but he's a good lad," the Juventus defender told reporters (via Guardian Sport) when asked why he had gagged the goal scorer in a truly apt description of his team-mate.
There may be a myriad of problems with him, but perhaps the biggest is simply the dire state of Milan.
"It stems from the exit of many players with a winning mentality," Maldini said in that same interview, and Mario Balotelli is certainly missing them more than most.
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