Italian forward Mario Balotelli celebrat

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.

Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. West Ham

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LONDON — Arsenal beat West Ham United 5-1 at the London Stadium on Saturday as the Gunners remained unbeaten since the opening day of the Premier League season.

Mesut Ozil’s first half goal was added to by three from Alexis Sanchez and a stunner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second half as the Gunners ran riot.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided London derby.


SANCHEZ THE DIFFERENCE

There was word going around the press room deep in the London Stadium that Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez had tweaked his groin muscle in the warmup and was struggling.

Arsenal fans everywhere panicked. They were right to do that.

Luckily, Sanchez shook it off  (he was stretching out his left groin readily early on in the game) and was ready to torment West Ham’s defense. He set up Mesut Ozil for Arsenal’s first and then scored three goals himself in the space of 14 second half minutes, with the first a thing of beauty.

Once again deployed in a central striking role, Sanchez showed exactly why he’s so important to Arsenal and why him signing a new contract must be a priority for Arsene Wenger.

With him they have a real chance of challenging for the title and they’re only three points off first-place Chelsea. Without him, they don’t. Alongside Ozil, they are the two world class talents Arsenal possess and the board must break the bank to keep the star attacking duo on board.


NO PAYET? MORE PROBLEMS

For most of the first half you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Dimitri Payet was on the pitch. The French international playmaker strolled around and barely broke into a sweat as he completely failed to control the ball on one occassion and gave it away readily.

He ballooned a shot 20-yards over the bar and din’t do much else. In the second half he drifted in and out of the game, whipping in a few good set pieces and setting up Manuel Lanzini in the box, plus he also casually walked the ball out of play from a goo crossing position in the box.

With a report circulating on Saturday that Arsenal were lining up a bid for Payet, 29, in January, some could argue that he has mentally checked out at West Ham. The Hammers look set to be embroiled in a relegation battle and Payet just isn’t up for that. His midweek performance in the EFL Cup at Manchester United suggested as much and this display reinforced those notions.

He only committed his future to the Hammers in the summer but if Arsenal come calling in January with a big bid, it’s clear that Payet would prefer to move on. West Ham’s owners would loathe selling Payet, an action which would put further presure on themselves given the tumultuous move to the London Stadium. But ask yourself this: is it better to get $45-50 million for Payet now (ballpark figure) and reinvest it in center backs and strikers you badly need? Or keep him around so he can saunter across the pitch so it’s basically like playing with 10 men?

There’s no doubting West Ham would miss Payet’s creativity in the final third but right now he should be the least of their worries.


BILIC ON THE ROPES

There’s no getting around it. The situation is bleak for the Hammers.

Slaven Bilic‘s team performed so well last season, his debut campaign as West Ham manager. They rode nostalgia-driven euphoria in their final season at Upton Park to finish seventh in the Premier League.

With three defeats in their last five and no wins in that stretch, Bilic seems to be on the brink. They are one point out of the relegation zone and three points off the bottom.

Yes, the Hammers have plenty of  issues in defense and that was exasperated by James Collins coming off injured early on, but the entire game was just a case of them hanging in and hoping Payet or Lanzini would bail them out. That was never likely to happen.

The team gave up on Bilic in the end as Arsenal struck three times in the final 10 minutes. Given the stadium issues and fans not being happy with the owners about the move and a multitude of issues, Bilic and his players have been cut plenty of slack so far.

That won’t go on for much longer. With a pivotal two week period from Dec. 14-31 coming up, Bilic will need wins against Burnley, Hull, Swansea and Leicester if he’s not only going to get West Ham out of trouble, but also keep his job.

Make no mistake about, West Ham is in freefall.

West Ham United 1-5 Arsenal: Electric Alexis lights up Olympic Stadium

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates with team-mate Alexis Sanchez after scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
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  • Ozil puts Gunners ahead
  • Hat trick, assist for Alexis
  • Arsenal on 31 points
  • Carroll pulls one back

Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain helped Arsenal to a 5-1 road win at West Ham United on Saturday.

The win boosts Arsenal into second, three points back of Chelsea, though Liverpool can pass the Gunners with a point on Sunday.

Andy Carroll added a goal for the Irons when Dimitri Payet‘s free kick rebounded off the cross bar and directly to the big man’s noggin.

The Irons continue to disappoint, now just a point above the drop zone in 17th. Hull would shove West Ham into 17th with a win over Middlesbrough on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

An early injury to James Collins threatening to plague West Ham’s chances of a win, and the Gunners definitely had the better of the play.

Arsenal’s breakthrough came when West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna made a big mistake, his pass blocked into the path of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean worked Winston Reid quickly before passing across to Ozil for an easy tap-in.

The damage was limited into the break, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit a good chance woefully wide of the goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

West Ham’s second half started well, with both Dimitri Payet and Ashley Fletcher ripping shots toward the Arsenal goal.

The Irons kept up the pressure, with Ogbonna thwarting an Arsenal threat against the run of play by Theo Walcott.

Arsenal was countering for the second half’s first half hour, quite effectively. Darren Randolph was soon called upon to stop a pair of Gunner chances.

Turns out those counters were indicative of a change in control, and Sanchez scored a wonderful goal in the 72nd minute. Randolph was too deep in his goal, and the Chilean beat him far post.

He’d add another across the body of a sliding Randolph with 10 minutes to go, and this one was essentially over. Carroll, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Sanchez scored goals in the final 10 minutes.

Sanchez’s was a cute little dink over Randolph in the 87th minute.

Follow @NicholasMendola

VIDEO: Alexis Sanchez scores sensational twisting, spinning goal

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Alexis Sanchez is a beast.

On Saturday he scored a stunning solo goal at the London Stadium in Arsenal’s clash against West Ham.

First his first goal the ball was drilled into him by Shkodran Mustafi and in one movement he controlled the ball, spun his marker and was away.

He still had plenty to do but the Chilean striker drilled a perfect effort across goal and into the far corner to put the Gunners 2-0 up. He then added two more goals for a 14 minute hat trick.

What a menace.

Watch his first goal in the video above, as Sanchez shrugged off a groin issue he suffered in the warmup and tormented West Ham.

WATCH: 2 red cards for fight… between Preston teammates

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - APRIL 09:  Gaston Ramirez of Middlesbrough (C) is challenged by Dan Johnson (L) and Eoin Doyle of Preston North End during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Preston North End at the Riverside Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Middlesbrough, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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Preston North End attacker Eoin Doyle scored a goal and saw a ridiculous red card within an eight-minute span in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday.

It wasn’t ridiculous that he was given the card, rather how he earned the sending off.

[ MORE: El Clasico ends in late draw ]

Doyle and teammate Jermaine Beckford had to broken up by teammates and opponents after the pair failed to team up for a scoring chance.

Beckford thought he was open for a pass that never came from Doyle, and shoves were exchanged before referee Scott Duncan sent both players to the stands in the 90th minute.

Follow @NicholasMendola