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.

VIDEO: Real Madrid announce $650 million stadium redevelopment

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Real Madrid’s historic Santiago Bernabeu stadium will get a major facelift in the coming years.

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The reigning European champions have released details as to how their home will be redeveloped, with a much more modern feel coming up for one of the greatest soccer cathedrals on the planet.

One of the key features of the new stadium includes the new steel outer structure, as well as technology allowing videos to be featured on the outside of the stadium and a fixed and retractable roof installed. Plus, they’ve gone and copied Atlanta United’s stadium with a 360 degree screen in the upper reaches of the stadium.

With the ability to walk around the entire top tier of the stadium, plus an extended club museums and plenty more shops and restaraunts, this is a smart move by Real to update their 71-year-old home. Barcelona are doing the same with the Nou Camp, while Atletico Madrid’s move to their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium last year was a huge moment for them.

Real’s president Florentino Perez revealed that he hopes the plans will get the green light in early 2019 and estimated the work would take “approximately 3 and a half years” to complete.

Perez claims the fee to redevelop the stadium will be just $29.3 million per season, which he says is 4 percent of their total revenue and will not impact their transfer spending or wage budget. Real also claim that it would increase stadium revenue by $176 million per season.

Take a look at the incredible video below to get a taste of what lies ahead for the Santiago Bernabeu.

Spat in Spanish soccer over playing during daytime heat

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Spanish soccer has another spat on its hands.

The national soccer federation took issue with the Spanish league over its management strategy for the second time this week when it criticized the scheduling of games during what it considered the excessive heat of daytime.

The federation run by Luis Rubiales said it would try to take control of match scheduling if La Liga continues to hold matches in daytime heat.

The federation issued a statement on Sunday to express its “displeasure that matches are still being played each weekend under temperatures that are over 30 degrees (Celsius, 86 Fahrenheit) with the problems that cause athletes and fans.”

Sevilla vs. Levante started at 12:00 local time on Sunday, with Villarreal hosting Valencia at 16:15. Both matches featured water breaks in each half due to the high temperatures.

Villarreal coach Javier Calleja complained about the heat, and the time of the match.

“We have to find a better time (to play),” Calleja said after the 0-0 draw. “It was very hot today and it was not the best time. Today we all suffered, above all the players.”

The league’s heat protocol allows it to push back the time of matches if temperatures are expected to reach 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sunday’s match between Athletic Bilbao at Real Betis played in the southern city of Sevilla was originally scheduled to start at 18:30, but the league pushed it back to 20:00 earlier this week when forecasts called for temperatures to approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Prior to the federation statement, Rubiales wrote on Twitter “If La Liga maintains these crazy playing times, we will recover the power” to schedule matches. His tweet included a photo of woman who appeared to be receiving medical attention at a stadium, apparently for a health problem related to the heat.

League president Javier Tebas responded to Rubiales on Twitter by saying “my friend Luis Rubiales”. “you cannot recover what is not yours.”

The dispute over times is the second run-in between the league and federation this week.

On Friday, the federation responded to the league’s request to play a regular-season match in the United States with a letter listing several problems it finds in the plan.

MADRID EYES KEY WEEK

Expect Gareth Bale to be back in the frontline of Real Madrid’s attack this week when it faces high-profile matches at Sevilla and a capital derby against Atletico Madrid.

Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, who has the difficult task of following in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane, took a chance on Saturday when he left Bale and other first-choice players out of his lineup for the visit of Espanyol.

The decision seemed reasonable enough considering that Espanyol hasn’t won at the Santiago Bernabeu since the 1995-96 season, and that his regular starters had played on Wednesday in a 3-0 win over Roma in the Champions League. So Lopetegui took the calculated risk that now was the time to give Bale, Marcelo and Toni Kroos a break.

But instead of trouncing Espanyol with a squad led by Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, Madrid needed a favorable video review to see a first-half strike by Marco Asensio appear on the scoreboard, and Borja Iglesias’ shot to be rejected by the crossbar to eke out a 1-0 victory and avoid consecutive slips after drawing at Athletic Bilbao.

“Players who don’t play as often played well today, we had to give them minutes and they responded,” Lopetegui. “We had circled this match in red. Games that come after a match in the Champions League are always complicated.”

In and out of favor with Zidane, Bale has been the driving force for Madrid going back to the end of the last season, when he scored five goals in the final four appearances in La Liga. That scoring run preceded his outstanding performance in the Champions League final, when he scored twice as a second-half substitute to help beat Liverpool 3-1.

So far this season, the Wales winger has four goals in six appearances, including a goal in a 3-0 win over Roma to start Madrid’s European title defense.

Madrid visits Sevilla on Wednesday before hosting Atletico on Saturday. Three days later, Madrid then has a long trip to Moscow to play CSKA in the Champions League.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Mourinho’s mixed messages over Man United progression

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Jose Mourinho believes his Manchester United side will progress this season. Even if the table or points tally doesn’t show it.

Work that one out.

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Speaking ahead of United’s 1-1 draw at home to Wolves on Saturday — Paul Pogba has already had his say as he urged United to ‘attack, attack, attack’ at home — Mourinho said he is pleased with the overall development of his side.

“I am not saying we are going to have more points than last season because last season we collect a very acceptable level,” Mourinho said. “I think we are going to be a better team. We are going to play better than we did but I think it’s going to be a very difficult season. Not just for us, also for the others because the others they can say exactly the same as I am saying and they can say: ‘Oh, Manchester United, good team, good squad, City good squad, good team.’”

“I am optimistic, but a difficult season, yes,” Mourinho added. “I don’t change that because we won two matches in the Premier League. You see the level of the teams: you see [the] Liverpool squad, City squad, Chelsea squad, Tottenham squad, Arsenal improving. It’s going to be difficult.”

As Mourinho mentioned, they’ve won two of their last three but just three of their opening six PL games this season and they’re already eight points off league leaders Liverpool in the table.

Surely he can’t be too happy with the development of his team? Mourinho questioned the attitude of his players after the draw with Wolves, which isn’t a sign of him believing they’re moving in the right direction.

The Portuguese coach is sending out mixed messages.

United’s dropped points against Tottenham, Brighton and Wolves were deserved, although the game against Spurs was a strange one as they played well and should have led but they were then punished in the second half. Wolves could’ve easily nicked a win at United on Saturday and United’s defensive deficiencies are the biggest problem for Mourinho to sort out as he chops and changes defensive players.

Do they need to attack more? Well, that is always the objective for any team and United are no different, especially at home, but Mourinho doesn’t seem to know his best attacking lineup aside from Romelu Lukaku. There’s no doubt Alexis Sanchez is in a severe slump, while Marcus Rashford is being played out of position on the wing and the likes of Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are in and out of the team. To become a better attacking unit you need to have a settled system and personnel who can create and combine effectively. United do not have that. At all. And they haven’t since Mourinho arrived in 2016.

Over the past three seasons, United have scored 131 goals, the fewest amount of the so-called ‘big six’ in the Premier League.

They’ve scored nine goals in their opening six games of this season and they’ve conceded nine. That points to fine-tuning needed in both defense and attack if they’re not only going to finish in the top four but also drag themselves into the title race.

At this point Mourinho needs his players to put points on the board and more trophies in the cabinet at Old Trafford because his team aren’t showing serious signs of progression and aren’t enjoyable to watch on a weekly basis a la Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Arsenal.

Sarri believes Chelsea still far from competing with Liverpool

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Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri checked the Blues fixture list, saw Liverpool twice in one week, and groaned. Probably.

After Chelsea drew 0-0 with London rivals West Ham on Sunday, Sarri looked ahead and told reporters that Liverpool has the continuity he craves.

“They are a step forward of us at this moment,” said Sarri when asked about Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. “We have to play against a very, very good team who have worked with the same coach for three years. We have started to work together 40 days ago, less 10 days for the international break, so for us it is a bit early. We have to work and then, maybe, in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool.”

Klopp was hired as Liverpool manager on October 8, 2015 and has slowly built the Reds squad into not just a Premier League title contender, but a formidable Champions League power as well, reaching the tournament final last campaign. Sarri believes the Liverpool attack is one of the most dangerous they’ll face, and while it might be entertaining for fans, it will stress him out.

“It will be a really difficult match,” Sarri said. “Maybe spectacular but for us, difficult. I don’t think there is an easy game against Salah, Firmino and Mane.”

Chelsea first faces Liverpool in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday at Anfield, and Sarri says he could make “five or eleven changes” with one less day to rest. Then, the clubs meet in the Premier League on Saturday at Stamford Bridge at 12:30 p.m. ET.