Mario Balotelli to Milan: Where whimsy may finally meet greatness

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Mario is leaving Manchester, if AC Milan’s to be believed. The whimsical Manchester City striker, brought to Eastlands two and a half years ago, is on his way to Milan ahead of a Wednesday physical. If passed, the exam will be the last step before a return home. For a $31.5 million fee (that could climb after performances bonuses), the Rossoneri will get the 22-year-old Italian international on a deal that’s said to run until 2017.

One of the most talented strikers in the world, Balotelli gave the world a glimpse of his game-defining potential with two Euro 2012 semifinal goals that led Italy to an upset victory of pre-tournament co-favorites Germany. In 75 appearances for Manchester City, the versatile striker has scored 30 all-competition goals, including 17 in 35 games last season. Bought from Inter Milan for $30 million in the summer of 2010, Balotelli has been a productive if mercurial presence for the English champions.

(MORE: Mario Balotelli’s top moments of madness)

It’s a label Balotelli’s earned off the field and on, his three years in Manchester having affirmed one of the more notorious reputations in world soccer. While most who’ve covered him closely describe a mischievous and mostly harmless character, the list of high-profile incidents linked to Sicily-born attacker have endowed him with a comical fame. Perhaps the most emblematic incident came in October 2011 when Balotelli set his house on fire after igniting fireworks in a bathroom. In a game the next day, Balotelli celebrated a goal by lifting his jersey to reveal a t-shirt which read “why always me?” – a reference to the media attention he attracts. Balotelli later became a firework safety ambassador for Great Manchester.

source:  Among other famous anecdotes, Balotelli crashed a car soon after his Manchester arrival only to be found with near-$8,000 in cash on him when police came to investigate the incident. He was photographed in the company of Mafia members during his first spell in Italy, and out of curiosity, he has made unsolicited visits to prisons. Closer to the field, Balotelli’s immense talents have been mitigated by confrontations with coaches, brow-furrowing behavior like the ball heel shot that saw him pulled from a preseason game in Los Angeles, and a series of training ground fights with teammates, including captain Vincent Kompany.

Amid whimsy and volatility is a player who possesses an elite array of talents – the type of gifts that lead clubs like City and Milan to pay transfer fees that would be the records for near-every club in the world. His supreme technical skills endow him with an enviable first touch, one which, combined with his 6’2″ frame, allows him to play as a target forward. But his speed and athleticism have seen him spend time in wide positions, with a brilliant ball-striking ability making him a threat from distance in open play as well as from dead balls. There is a reason why people like Italy coach Cesare Prandelli and Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini continue to find room in their teams for “Super Mario.”

His tendency to constantly defy his antics and win back playing time is something that’s frustrated critics who decry Balotelli’s fickle antics. Having already put in five-and-a-half seasons between Internazionale and City, many understandably see the talented striker as a seasoned if still maturing player. How many 22-year-olds are professional soccer players? (A lot.) And how many leverage their talent for such selfish pursuits? (One.) Well-compensated by the deal that took him to Manchester, it’s not unfair for onlookers — particularly, City fans — to expect more from somebody for whom greatness is only a mental tweak away.

source: Getty ImagesIt bears reminding that not all 22-year-olds are created the same. Balotelli’s past is one of relative turmoil. An impoverished family of Ghanian immigrants burdened by medical bills from Balotelli’s early childhood health problems gave him up to foster care when he was two years old. The biological family eventually faded out of his life, leaving a Sicilian-born foster child of African descent to be raised by a Jewish-Italian foster family in Brescia. For many familiar with Balotelli’s story, the player’s personality reflects a type of extended adolescence born of early childhood uncertainties.

Now Balotelli is Massimiliano Allegri’s pleasure and problem – the newest piece of what could be an incredibly dynamic if but maturing attack. Twenty-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy has been the Italian season’s breakout star, his 15 goals from mostly a wide-left position trailing only Napoli’s Edinson Cavani for the league’s lead. On the right, 18-year-old M’Baye Niang has seen more time of late, though the summer acquisition from Caen has yet to notch his first Serie A goal. Together, the trio gives Allegri a collection of players who will be among the most fearsome one-on-one talents in the league, their speed and athleticism allowing the Rossoneri to attack with defense-collapsing talents from all angles.

In reality, a player like Bojan Krkic will likely need to be mixed in to provide a more creative presence in possession. And Milan also have Giampaolo Pazzini and (for now) Robinho in the squad. For a team the cleared their shelves of talent this offseason, Milan suddenly have an enviable collection of quality attackers, even if the best of them are still 22 or younger.

All of them are going to be overshadowed by Balotelli now. Having transcended pop curiosity to semi-national hero this summer, Balotelli becomes the preeminent figure in the team, if not the league. If Allegri gets more out of a player who’s rejoining the club he supported in his youth, $31.5 million will prove a reasonable price for somebody so talented. And it’s a move that always seemed inevitable when

Whether this move sees Balotelli fulfill his potential, well, that’s not up to Allegri. When Mario decides to be great, he’ll be great.

World Cup expansion will destroy regional qualifying

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On Thursday, FIFA announced a preliminary plan to expand the World Cup to a whopping 48 teams, starting in 2026 if the approval process goes as planned.

Every continental region is gaining slots, with CONCACAF nearly doubling its allotment, Africa adding four teams, and Europe gaining three. 46 teams would make the tournament outright, while another two would come from a six-team playoff.

The early outlook was met with cautious optimism across the soccer community, and there’s no doubt that the World Cup itself would benefit from expansion, with not only a significantly increased revenue stream for the FIFA brass to gawk at, but also viewers will gain from added entertainment, a la March Madness as smaller countries gain access to opportunities to shock larger nations in front of a grander audience.

[ MORE: FIFA announces World Cup expansion details ]

Despite the obvious gains, what gets completely and utterly dismantled is the qualification stage. In exchange for a month of tournament-style wackiness, not only does making the World Cup completely lose any remaining pedigree, but the qualification stage becomes an afterthought for continental powerhouses.

This particularly applies to CONCACAF, where currently the final round of qualification features a six-team round-robin. The way it stands currently, the usual bunch can often overcome minor slips to qualify on a regular basis, but as we’re seeing with the United States, at least things are interesting for the opening few rounds and questions often remain throughout the entire process. Just last cycle, we saw Mexico qualify thanks to the United States’ generosity with a last-second goal against Panama to send their southern neighbors through. Bottom line: it’s not always easy.

Now, with the new system, a massive total of six teams will make the finals, leaving almost no doubt about the fates of those at the top. Mexico and the United States will be shoo-ins, leaving the qualification process a near-afterthought. Sure, countries that don’t always see the final rounds will now have an increased shot, and that’s a great development for the growth of the game worldwide, but it comes at a great price. Now, instead of the ability to lure casual World Cup-only fans with meaningful games between tournaments, national teams will be left with a shell of the old qualification process to slog through.

Looking to Europe, already teams like France, Spain, and Germany are running away with their groups in the current format. Add three more slots to the mix, and even the next tier of countries like England, Poland, and Italy will be given near-automatic spots. Group G currently sees Spain and Italy battling for the automatic berth, with the runner-up left with a chance at disappointment in a one-game playoff. Now, with the new system, the life is sucked from the process, and teams are left with glorified friendlies.

In South America, four (usually five) teams make the tournament. That often leaves a top team sweating it out near the end of the cycle, with Argentina currently tugging at its collar having slipped in recent qualifiers. Add two more automatic slots, and you can kiss the drama goodbye. As it stands, Argentina – despite three losses in its last five matches – would still be four points clear of danger.

tl;dr version: It’s no fun anymore.

Nobody is surprised by FIFA’s pursuit of yet another way to increase revenue; we’ve seen it countless times before. Unfortunately, the price is high, as the 3-1/2 years between would entirely fall apart.

Preview of every Premier League game – Week 30

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It’s back! The Premier League returns after the final international break of the 2016-17 season and the run-in has begun.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With a massive clash between Arsenal and Manchester City on Sunday, plus the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton on Saturday and tricky tests for Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, plenty of the big boys could drop points this weekend.

[ MORE: PL schedule | Standings

Below is a look at all 10 games with team news, top things to watch and a score prediction for each encounter.


Southampton vs. Bournemouth

Liverpool vs. Everton

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

Burnley vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace

Manchester United vs. West Brom

Hull City vs. West Ham

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough

Leicester City vs. Stoke City

Watford vs. Sunderland

Ilkay Gundogan impressed by US progress

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Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has been sharing Manchester City’s mantra in the USA recently.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With City announcing the schedule for their U.S. tour this summer, Gundogan’s long-term knee injury meant he was able to travel Stateside and work on his rehab while he also checked out New York City, promoted City’s upcoming tour, hung out in the studio with the NBC Sports crew — see the video above as Gundogan talks tactics with Robbie Earle — and also took in some MLS action.

He was a busy, busy man.

[ MORE: PL giants announce US tour dates

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk after his trip, the 26-year-old midfielder is excited about returning to the States this summer with his teammates as they face Real Madrid in LA, Tottenham Hotspur in Nashville and arch rivals Manchester United in preseason games.

“This preseason will be really important for the club, and it was also a privilege to represent the club and help launch our summer tour of the USA,” Gundogan said. “We are due to play some amazing games against Spurs, Real Madrid and also the derby with Manchester United. It’s a great chance to see some more USA cities and culture, and the players will be delighted to be out there in some good weather in some amazing stadiums, in order to prepare for the season.”

Gundogan was a key part of Pep Guardiola‘s rebuild of City last summer but the former Borussia Dortmund star suffered a season-ending injury in December. He is well on the road to recovery and has had a close friend throughout the last few weeks of his rehab.

Joining him on his trip to the U.S. was fellow City teammate Gabriel Jesus — the 19-year-old Brazilian striker is recovering from a broken metatarsal — and the duo enjoyed hanging out in New York City to give themselves a break from the day-to-day grind in the gym.

“The hospitality in New York was brilliant, and the overall trip was a great way for Gabriel and myself to combine our rehabilitation in the gym with some marketing and community work for the club,” Gundogan explained. “We took in some U.S. sports by visiting games at New York City FC, the Brookyln Nets and New York Rangers, and also did some sightseeing around New York. I enjoyed seeing the Manchester City billboard advert in Times Square with our photo on it! And watching Germany beat England in a New York bar in Manhattan was also an experience…”

One of the advantages of visiting the Big Apple was the fact that City’s stars could spend some time with sister club New York City FC and Gundogan and Gabriel had the chance to meet with NYCFC boss Patrick Vieira, with the German taking a keen interest in how the game is developing in the USA.

“Gabriel and I went for dinner with Patrick Vieira and we heard all about how well he is enjoying coaching New York City FC. And we saw the NYCFC game against Montreal, and it was incredible to witness the passion for the club there at Yankee Stadium,” Gundogan said. “There is no doubt that soccer is on an upward curve in the USA, and its very interesting to see it developing. The passion for sport is evident, the facilities are incredible, and they have all the ingredients for soccer to continue to improve.”

Overall, the trip was a great way for the silky midfielder to taste the U.S. before a big summer Stateside for City and MLS had a lasting impression on the German star who is hopeful that soccer will continue to grow and progress.

“We do get to see MLS games over in Europe now and then, and there is an increased focus on it at Manchester City, given our colleagues in New York play in that league,” Gundogan said. “It was great to see it in the flesh at Yankee Stadium last week and I’ll definitely be paying a closer attention to it in future. I certainly think it has a great potential. There are some great players in the league, both from at home and also the stars coming from elsewhere around the globe like Andrea Pirlo and David Villa. The standard is improving all the time.”

Two months to go: What’s ahead for each Premier League club?

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The sun is shinning in England this week as we head into April and there are just nine gameweek’s remaining in the Premier League. Can you believe it?

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After a long winter, the business end of the season is here and there’s still so much on the line when it comes to the top four race, relegation battle and maybe, just maybe, Chelsea will start to wobble as the edge closer to the title…

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings |  Schedule

Let’s have some fun by summing up what lies ahead in the final two months of the season for each club in a single sentence. With no more international breaks to negotiate, we are entering the home-stretch of the 2016-17 campaign.

Ready? Here it goes.


Arsenal – Uncertainty in the air, Arsene Wenger‘s side have to regroup to secure a top four finish and try to win the FA Cup with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil putting their contract issues aside and leading the way.

Bournemouth – Should be a stroll in the South Coast sun for the Cherries in the final few months of the season as Eddie Howe‘s side have picked up back-to-back wins and should be clear of relegation and able to express themselves.

Burnley – Well on course to retain their status as a Premier League club for the first time in history, Sean Dyche‘s side will hunt their first away win of the season and look to cause a few more shocks at home with relegation no longer a lingering fear.

Chelsea – All about the title for Chelsea as Antonio Conte‘s men can wrap things up before the end of April if other results go their way, plus the double is still up for grabs as Conte looks to cap off his first season in England in style.

Crystal PalaceSam Allardyce the survival expert is at it again with three-straight shutout wins as he’s sorted out Palace’s defense but knows a huge challenge is ahead with all of the top six teams still to play.

Everton – The Toffees have top four aspirations and are the in-form team in the Premier League in 2017 as Ronald Koeman hopes Romelu Lukaku‘s goals can fire Everton to an unlikely top six finish.

Hull City – Survival is the key for the Tigers as Marco Silva’s men battle against all the odds to remain in the Premier League and they have a real fighting chance with some big games against relegation rivals still remaining.

Leicester City – After three-straight wins new manager Craig Shakespeare will look to secure Leicester’s PL status as soon as possible and then all the focus is on Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals… surely they can’t make the UCL’s last four?

LiverpoolJurgen Klopp‘s preseason target of finishing in the top four is well within reach but you get the lingering sense that Liverpool’s fans are getting nervous as clashes with bottom half teams proving tricky all season long.

Manchester City – Top four finish (by no means a guarantee) and an FA Cup victory would be a decent first season for Pep Guardiola at City but after spending so much money there’s a feeling that better things are to come next season.

Manchester United – All the focus is on somehow qualifying for the Champions League next season, be that with a top four finish or winning the Europa League as Jose Mourinho’s injury-hit squad will be under intense pressure as the games come thick and fast.

Middlesbrough – The next three weeks will define Boro’s season as they face direct relegation rivals and caretaker boss Steve Agnew simply needs his team to start throwing caution to the wind and score some goals.

Southampton – Saints’ season is in danger of petering out after their Europa League exploits and EFL Cup final defeat as they aren’t close to the relegation zone and can’t finish any higher than eighth place in Claude Puel‘s debut campaign in charge.

Stoke CityMark Hughes‘ Stoke are set for a fourth-straight top 10 finish but making that extra leap to try and challenge the top six is proving so difficult for not only the Potters but a host of well-run teams.

Sunderland – Survival is on the mind of David Moyes‘ side who have spent 91 percent of the campaign in the bottom three and they need Jermain Defoe to keep scoring and for their fans to pray for a miracle…

Swansea City – After picking up big wins when Paul Clement first arrived, the Swans have regressed in recent weeks and they need to win key games against relegation rivals in the run-in before some tough games to finish with.

Tottenham HotspurMauricio Pochettino‘s youngsters believe they can still catch Chelsea and win the Premier League title with a favorable run of games to finish with, but another top four finish would be a great season and adding an FA Cup trophy would be the cherry on top despite their struggles in Europe.

WatfordWalter Mazzarri‘s men have had a really strange season and after losing three of their last four games the Hornets are starting to glance over their shoulders a little at the relegation zone with a tough finish to the season coming up.

West Brom – A phenomenal season so far for the Baggies as they aim to reach 50 points in a single season for the first time in club history and Tony Pulis‘ men will look to upset Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in the process.

West HamSlaven Bilic and the Hammers probably can’t wait for this season to end but there’s still a very good chance they can finish in the top 10 with a favorable run-in giving them a chance to salvage a season riddled by injuries, the move to a new stadium and losing Dimitri Payet.