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Mario Balotelli's Career at a Crossroads Ahead of Big Summer Decisions

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2016

Mario Balotelli's next destination could decide the fate of his career.
Mario Balotelli's next destination could decide the fate of his career.Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

It's been quite a fall for Mario Balotelli.

Four years ago, he was the up-and-comer in the Italian player pool.  He had just provided the deciding assist to give Manchester City their first English title since 1968—a last-second pass to Sergio Aguero that will go down as one of the defining moments in the Premier League this century.

He carried Italy's No. 9 shirt into the 2012 UEFA European Championships and dazzled, sealing Italy's progress from the group stage with a goal against the Republic of Ireland, and the win fueled their semifinal upset of Germany with two strikes, including an 18-yard thunderbolt of a strike and subsequent celebration that spawned parodies by the dozen.

Now his career is hanging by a thread.  Between issues off the field and a prolonged run of bad form on it, Balotelli is a man without a club.  The team that owns his rights, Liverpool, doesn't want him.  He doesn't seem to have been able to impress AC Milan enough on his loan this season for them to buy him outright.

He has talent—so much talent.  Besides Domenico Berardi, he's probably the most natively gifted attacker Italy has.  But for one reason or another, he's never been able to bring it all to bear at the same time—which is why there is so much uncertainty surrounding his future.

Things started going wrong two seasons ago, when Milan sold Balotelli to Liverpool.  He never settled at Anfield, and he scored only three times in 21 games through all competitions.  Clearly not in the team's plans, he made a surprising loan move back to Milan near the end of last summer's transfer window.

Balotelli started strong against Inter, but injury derailed his season.
Balotelli started strong against Inter, but injury derailed his season.GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

Having not played for months, it took Balotelli a few weeks to get back into game shape.  When then-coach Sinisa Mihajlovic did give him his second Milan debut in the third game of the season—the first Derby della Madonnina against Inter Milan—we saw what looked like a new man.

Balotelli took what had been a relatively dull game and turned into a dynamic one.  He was the most dangerous man on the field for the last half-hour of that game.  

Had Inter employed a lesser goalkeeper than Samir Handanovic, Milan would have at least scored an equalizer rather than succumbing to a 1-0 defeat.  Perhaps even more important, Balotelli declined to respond when Inter defenders began trying to goad him into losing his temper.

He kept that start going through the month of September.  He was similarly influential as a sub against Palermo, scored on his first start of the year with an excellent free-kick against Udinese and put in a good shift with his team down a man against Genoa.

Then his season fell apart.  In that game against Genoa, he suffered a sports hernia.

Sports hernias are tricky injuries, and this one required surgery.  He was initially expected to miss a month, but didn't make his return until January.

By that point M'Baye Niang had developed an effective partnership with Carlos Bacca up front, and Balotelli was forced back into a substitute's role.  This saw him slide back into old habits, particularly the tendencies to loaf when not in possession and pick up cards.  That lack of effort drew the ire of Mihajlovic, and Balotelli stayed on the bench.

When Niang injured his ankle in a car accident, Balotelli had more of a chance in the starting lineup, but he still had to fend off competition from Luiz Adriano and Jeremy Menez.  He had some good performances, particularly in early April against Juventus, but on the whole his season never lived up to the promise of those first four games.

That's a darn shame, because this loan move to Milan was widely seen as Balotelli's last chance at high-level football.  Now there's no knowing where he'll be next season.

Newly promoted Crotone has been mooted as a destination for Balotelli.
Newly promoted Crotone has been mooted as a destination for Balotelli.Elisabetta Baracchi/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's clear Liverpool don't want him anymore.  Milan aren't going to buy him back, but they are still an option. Sky Sport Italia reported on Sunday (h/t Football Italia) that the Rossoneri are prepared to take him back next year on another loan deal to see if he can expand on his positive start this year.

There are other options.  February reports from Press Association Sport (h/t ESPN FC) stated the Reds were prepared to offer the player to the teams of the Chinese Super League, which has been raiding Europe's clubs with big-money moves for the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jackson Martinez and Ramires in the past year.

But leaving Italy tends to intensify Balotelli's problems, as exemplified by his difficulties settling at both Liverpool and Manchester City.  If he wants to stay and Milan decides against keeping him, there is one option—unlikely as it is.

On Tuesday, Raffaele Vrenna, the president of newly promoted Crotone, told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) not only was he interested in Balotelli, but he would also "give him the captain's armband" if he accepted a move to the Sharks.

While it seems outrageous, the idea of moving down to a small team to reboot one's career isn't unheard of, and it's something Balotelli could certainly use—a shot in the arm.  The sticking point is money; tiny Crotone is unlikely to be able to afford his wages.

Assuming these are Balotelli's only three options, which would be the best?

China would certainly be lucrative.  The Chinese are looking to pay top-dollar to try to bring their league to prominence, and a player with Balotelli's profile would certainly raise the Super League's recognition level. But it's probably a dead end career-wise.  If he ever wants to play internationally again, he'll need to stay in Europe.

Milan is a good place for him.  It's a familiar environment, and he has behaved better in Italy than abroad. The big question is playing time.  At Milan he won't be a guaranteed starter, and if he's to get his career back on track, he needs to play regularly.  He'll get that at Crotone, where he'll easily be the best attacker on the team and likely have a clean slate.

But there will be challenges there as well.  The Sharks are about to embark on their first-ever Serie A season—they're sure to struggle for survival next year.  Balotelli's response to such a situation would be telling.  If he turned into an on-field leader, his stock would skyrocket.  But if he reacts badly, he could truly bury his career.

Staying in Italy is probably Balotelli's best bet to revive his career and become Super Mario again.  Milan and Crotone each have their own pros and cons, and Balotelli will have to chose wisely.  If he makes the wrong decision, his career—which even now still holds untold promise—may never recover.

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