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.

Report: Minnesota United chasing Ecuadorian national teamer

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Minnesota United may be hoping another Ibarra can cure what ails its attack.

Romario Ibarra, 23, is on the Loons’ radar according to The Athletic‘s Kristian Dyer and Jeff Rueter, who say Minnesota would like to land the Ecuadorian when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Ibarra was limited to eight matches for Universidad Católica this season as he battled through a lingering metatarsal fracture. But he’s scored against Argentina and Chile in each of his appearances for the national team, both World Cup qualifiers.

From The Athletic:

Sources say that Ibarra’s contract is unlikely to make him a designated player, leaving Quintero as the club’s sole DP. (It could depend, in part, on the size of the transfer fee.) Based on league standards, his salary will likely be drawn from Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) contract seems likely.

Ibarra’s older brother Renato plays for Club America, and has 36 caps.

Minnesota is six points outside the West’s final playoff spot, and has scored just 17 goals in 14 matches.

Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal field set

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The 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is down to one non-MLS entrant after LAFC fought past Sacramento Republic’s dogged effort to make it two, twice equalizing en route to a 3-2 win.

[ MORE: TFC extends Bono ]

Louisville City won a battle of USL sides in Wednesday’s final day of fifth round action, knocking off Nashville SC by a 2-1 score.

Now attention turns to the quarterfinals, where USL champions Louisville City will face the Chicago Fire on July 18.

All four quarterfinals will be staged on that day, and the winner of Louisville-Chicago will face the winner of the duel between Philadelphia Union and Orlando City.

The other side of the bracket shows Houston Dynamo against Sporting KC, and LAFC against the Portland Timbers.

Chicago and KC have won the cup an MLS-best four times each, while Philadelphia has finished second twice.

The remaining quarterfinalists have not advanced to a USOC final.

Sprawling translated Emery interview talks PSG, Guardiola, more

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Arsenal manager Unai Emery has given a sprawling interview, translated by France Football News, in which he discusses his history and his philosophies.

The interview was conducted after Emery was dismissed by Paris Saint-Germain but before he was hired by the Gunners.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

It’s a fascinating read, with Emery going deep into his relationship with Neymar, the need for PSG to get an “A-ha” goal for its history books, and much, much more.

The interview is with Marti Perarnau, the author of “Pep Confidential,” and there are plenty of good nuggets regarding the Manchester City boss, as well as Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, PSG, Real Madrid, and Barcelona.

It’s fairly clear that Emery figured he’d be going to a new league, and he certainly seems like a guy fit for a project like succeeding Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. For one thing, he’s proud of his team’s style.

That’s something valued by the North London set, and Emery pointed out that Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid and Pep Guardiola at Man City had to fail before they succeeded.

Let me say this: PSG played well and won. Many people don’t value that enough and believe that it is easy. But what happened to us? We lacked competitiveness in important moments. Why? Because this team is not confronted with enough moments of adversity in the league. Being competitive also means being faced with adversity. One has to suffer like Simeone’s team to win. One has to suffer like Pep’s team to win in England.

My team had two basic principles: having possession and pressing. That was the basis. Having the ball, and winning it back as fast as possible. I should add a little nuance. I’m talking about having possession and not positioning because there are moments where you can win the ball through positioning, and others where moving out of position can surprise the opponent. And like Guardiola says, if you have to win with a long ball from the goalkeeper towards the striker and that the forward scores with his ass, then so be it! We work like that as well.

And here’s just a quick nugget on the importance of playmaking, and how good players make a coach look better.

During his first match against Toulouse at the Parc des Princes, we get corner. Neymar takes it quickly and Kurzawa scores. We hadn’t worked that at all with him. Afterwards, I told Neymar, “My work is limited to your strokes of genius.”

Love it. Arsenal seems like it’s in good hands. Read the full interview here.

Khedira laughs off Swedish reporter’s offer of tickets home

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Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira brushed off a gesture from a Swedish reporter, trading a bit of banter ahead of Germany’s big World Cup match against Sweden on Saturday.

Germany fell 1-0 to Mexico in its opener while Sweden beat South Korea, leading a playful Swede to hand Khedira boarding passes for a flight home to Germany.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Khedira’s reply? He joked that Sweden won’t be a problem and he’ll use the tickets after the World Cup Final.

From Goal.com:

“After this bad start, we know that it’s super difficult, but we know that we are a strong team. We analysed the game, we saw Sweden play and we are sure that we are winning this game.

“I think we’ll need them [plane tickets] on the 16th of July.”