Balotelli's back! Super Mario's Italy recall a sad reflection of Mancini's desperation
The enigmatic striker hasn't played for his country since 2018, but is being given a shot because of the Azzurri's shocking lack of quality forwards
After missing out on a succession of transfer targets in the summer of 2014, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers told Steven Gerrard shortly before the close of the transfer window that he was going to gamble on Mario Balotelli.
His captain replied: "Uh-oh."
Balotelli's return to the Italy fold has provoked a similar reaction among many Azzurri fans. His former colleagues may well find it just as concerning.
Less than two years ago, Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini described Balotelli as "a negative person with no respect for the team."
The Juventus defender even went so far as to admit that he felt the enigmatic striker deserved "a few slaps" for the way in which he conducted himself on international duty, and added that for "someone who thinks he is among the top five players in the world, I never even thought he could be in the top 10 or 20."
Balotelli was hurt by that brutally honest assessment, but the pair promptly made peace when brought together via video call to discuss the matter on TV show Le Iene.
Chiellini even closed their good-natured discussion by saying he hoped they would play together again at Euro 2020.
That never happened, of course, with Balotelli getting nowhere near the Azzurri squad for last summer's shock success at Wembley.
Remarkably, though, a very odd couple could yet take the field together at this year's World Cup.
On Monday, it was confirmed that Balotelli has been sensationally called up by Roberto Mancini for a training camp at the end of January, after just over three years in the international wilderness.
Few saw this coming. However, Mancini is as desperate as Rodgers was back in 2014. Perhaps even more so.
Italy may have conquered Europe – and confounded stereotypes – in 2021 with a thrilling brand of dynamic, offensive football, but they did so without a prolific centre-forward.
Ciro Immobile, as he was once again at pains to point out earlier this month, netted twice at the European Championship and, as a former European Golden Shoe winner, his goalscoring record should be respected.
However, even at Euro 2020, Immobile once again failed to look anything like a world-class striker in the mould of Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema.
It has ever been thus with the Lazio legend, who has netted just 15 times in 54 appearances for Italy.
Balotelli has just one goal fewer from 36 outings, which is precisely why Mancini feels he is a gamble worth taking.
There is also the fact that the 31-year-old has found some form – and stability – playing under Vincenzo Montella in Turkey.
After a disastrous return to his native Brescia and a short stint at Serie B side Monza, Balotelli's career at the highest level appeared to be over.
Mancini has long served as something of a footballing father figure to the forward, but even he admitted to the Gazzetta dello Sport in 2019, "I love him but I can't do anything for him anymore."
It was all on Balotelli to get his act together if he were to salvage the final years of his career, and the early signs were that a surprise move to Turkish outfit Adana Demirsport last July had done little to settle Super Mario.
In just his third game for the Turkish outfit, he reacted furiously to being replaced by then-coach Samet Aybaba, even appearing to punch a team-mate, perhaps accidentally.
Aybaba, for his part, already appeared to have had enough of Balotelli.
"I'm not satisfied," he admitted to reporters. "Football is a running game. If you don't run, you don't beat anybody."
However, just three days after Balotelli's strop, club president Murat Sancak sacked Aybaba. Unsurprisingly, the latter was less than impressed, feeling he had been placed in an impossible situation.
"If Balotelli plays, he's a problem," Aybaba told Fanatik. "If he doesn't play, he's the same problem."
Sancak did issue a vague warning in a subsequent press conference, "Nobody comes before the club, not even Balotelli. Indeed, if Mario continues to react like this..."
However, it was already clear that the president had developed a real soft spot for his star summer signing.
"We are like brothers," he later revealed. "He loves me very much. He doesn't go anywhere without my say-so."
As it stands, Sancak's decision to side with Balotelli has been vindicated, primarily because of the Turkish tycoon's shrewd move to bring in Montella as Aybaba's replacement.
After picking up just two points from their first three games of the Super Lig season, Adana are now fourth in the table. And Balotelli has played his part in their impressive improvement, netting eight times in 20 appearances, only 15 of which have come as starts.
Montella, it has to be said, has managed the situation masterfully to date, getting something resembling the best out of Balotelli by tapping into the forward's desire to represent Italy once again.
"In his career, Mario has created an image of himself and he has to accept it," the former Roma coach told GOAL in December.
"But he's managed to adapt to our system and his physical condition is improving day by day."
This was one of Mancini's primary concerns before the season began.
He has never had any doubts over Balotelli's technical ability, but he wondered whether he was capable of getting himself back in shape, which he made abundantly clear to the striker when they spoke last year.
Balotelli freely accepted that he had a long way to go to regain the trust of a manager that he repeatedly enraged during their time together at Manchester City. But, by last November, he was already talking optimistically about a recall.
That was because Italy had just blown their hopes of automatic qualification for World Cup 2022 by drawing their final two group games, against Switzerland and Northern Ireland.
As a result, Italy must now beat North Macedonia and then the winners of Portugal's clash with Turkey to seal a spot in Qatar.
Italy's prospects have been further weakened by the loss of their best attacker, Federico Chiesa, to a season-ending knee injury, so the worry now is where the goals are going to come from.
Of course, many Italians are also asking, 'Why always Balotelli?' Every time they suffer a goal drought, his name gets brought up.
He has burned a lot of bridges, but the reason why he is back in contention is because others have failed to step up in his absence.
As his brother Enock Barwuah pointed out in an interview with Notizie.com, “We are not a side like France, who have the likes of Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud.
"With all due respect for Italy, we don’t have that kind of a selection in attack. This is why someone like Balotelli cannot be ignored, even just as part of the squad."
Does he deserve this shot at redemption? Some would argue not. After all, he is hardly the top scorer in Turkey. That is Aleksandar Pesic.
No, Balotelli sits joint-seventh, with eight goals. That's one fewer than former Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi, and as many as Mame Biram Diouf, once of Manchester United. What's more, his shot conversion rate (11.1 per cent) is worse than any other player among the Super Lig's top 20 scorers.
And even Barwuah admits that his brother has only ever really played at "30% of his potential".
“Look, he will never do what Immobile and Andrea Belotti do," he acknowledged. "He is not one who works that hard for the team, but he has other characteristics and can create a goal out of nowhere.
"For a team that is struggling to score goals, he’d be ideal."
And that is really what it all comes down to: Balotelli might be a decent option off the bench simply because he is so unpredictable. His team-mates often have no idea what he is going to do next but then, neither do his opponents.
The one thing we do know is that Balotelli is back. He has a shot at redemption.
It is a hell of a risk, given he can, as Ayaba so beautifully pointed out, create problems whether he plays or not.
Rodgers' Balotelli gamble backfired badly. Italy really could do with Mancini's paying off.
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