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.

Top Premier League storylines: Week 35

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A pretty unique situation at the Etihad Stadium headlines another stop on the road to the Premier League title.


And we go again
Man City v. Tottenham Hotspur — 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com STREAM ]

As hard as it is to fathom Man City getting off the mat quickly following their Champions League exit at the hands of Spurs, it’s even more difficult to imagine the visitors traveling back to London and returning to Manchester with the same fire shown in Wednesday’s thriller.

Not only that, but how can the hosts ignore reminders of what happened against the visitors three days prior with the very same opponents staring them down, even if City is business-like? Frankly, no result would surprise us (unless someone hangs 10 goals or something truly absurd happens at the Etihad (again)).

Liverpool’s title train pulls into Wales to meet hopeful Bluebirds
Cardiff City v. Liverpool — 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com STREAM ]

Cardiff City has new life in the race for Premier League survival, though Neil Warnock‘s men will hardly be expecting a point or three from Liverpool’s Anfield visit. That said, the Reds are coming back from Portugal and have been using Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah an awful lot. Here is where guys like Xherdan Shaqiri will, theoretically, need to step up.

Weary Chelsea seeks revenge against relatively rested Reds
Everton v. Manchester United — 8:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com STREAM ]

You wouldn’t be stunned if Manchester United fans are having second thoughts about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Red Devils full-time boss, though they’d be over the same things — that defense — that worried Jose Mourinho. Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurdsson will try to seize on that, and United’s midweek action versus Barcelona, at Goodison Park.

Stumbling Wolves hope to take advantage of sluggish Brighton
Wolves v. Brighton and Hove Albion — 10 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com STREAM ]

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men have slipped back into their early season mold of having fine performances in big games but not fully arriving for the little guys. Brighton, now just two points clear of the drop zone, will hope that it can do as visitors what hosts Southampton and Burnley did to Wolves.

Magpies, Saints battle for assured safety at St. James’ Park
Newcastle United v. Southampton — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC and online via NBCSports.com STREAM ]

The stakes here are pretty straight-forward: Win, and forget about relegation (Saints would still be mathematically alive for the drop with all three points, but it would be an extreme scenario involving fellow drop candidates running off wins over big sides).

Video shows Lazio fans’ racist chants aimed at Chelsea loanee Bakayoko

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ROME (AP) A video has emerged of Lazio fans directing a racist chant at AC Milan midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko.

The video posted on the Gazzetta dello Sport website shows fans singing, “This banana is for Bakayoko,” during Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Udinese at the Stadio Olimpico.

[ MORE: Pochettino “not optimistic” on Kane ]

It was an apparent response to Bakayoko and Milan teammate Franck Kessie waving the shirt of Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi in front of their supporters like a trophy after a 1-0 win on Saturday.

Bakayoko, who is black, is on loan from Chelsea.

Lazio fans have a long history of racist and anti-Semitic episodes.

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

Chelsea, Pulisic may tour U.S. in 2020

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Chelsea has announced intent to visit the United States in the Summer of 2020.

Blues chairman Bruce Buck says the club “has work to do in Middle America” as it’s built up what he believes to be significant support on the coasts of the United States.

[ MORE: Pochettino “not optimistic” on Kane ]

Chelsea will be in Boston next month to play MLS side New England Revolution in a friendly billed “The Final Whistle on Hate.”

But Buck knows that Americans have plenty of interest in new signing Christian Pulisic, who will still be with Borussia Dortmund when Chelsea visits the U.S. in May.

“He’s a personable boy. He’s well-liked in this country,” Buck told the Associated Press. “So of course I would expect him when we come here and play some friendly matches, which is what our objective is in the summer of 2020. Then, yes, I think he will be helpful.”

American fans have been skeptical about how much of Chelsea’s interest in Pulisic was based on potential for stardom versus potential for marketing appeal in the States, but it’s important to note that this article could’ve been written about signing a top Mexican player and touring Mexico, or a Japanese star and heading to Asia.

Pochettino discusses City rematch, Kane status

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Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham Hotspur flew back to North London after Wednesday’s memorable triumph in the UEFA Champions League, a few days before the club will make the same trip to visit Manchester City in the Premier League.

“We are tired after an amazing and crazy and unbelievable night,” Pochettino said, via the BBC. “We flew late and didn’t sleep too much, but the happiness made us feel strong and with energy. We need to forget the Champions League now and be ready for Saturday, for a battle.”

[ MORE: Klopp on 1st time facing Messi ]

Good luck on the forgetting part, Poch. The advancement past Man City over two legs came after VAR correctly ripped a stoppage time City goal off the board and plunged Spurs from despair into euphoria.

And now they go again.

Pochettino said he elected to bring the team back to London to sleep in their own beds and recover at their own facilities.

It also allows Spurs to keep a close eye on Harry Kane, who missed the second leg and has been expected to miss most if not all of the season with an ankle injury.

“We are not optimistic but you know Harry Kane and with Harry Kane all is possible,” Pochettino said. “We are not going to say he is not going to play again or not. We will assess him day by day.”

We have to imagine that Spurs going from, “Can we beat City and stay in the Top Four without Harry?” to “We are three wins from a Champions League title” might help Kane heal a bit faster (and he’s already a bit of a specimen when it comes to that.