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Aug 25, 2014

Welcome back, Mario Balotelli

Former Liverpool player Steve Nicol expresses his concern regarding Mario Balotelli's move to Anfield.

Dear Mario,

On behalf of ESPN FC, let me welcome you back to the Prem. It's not all that different from the league you wreaked havoc upon during your last visit, except perhaps for the quantum physics anomaly that has Spurs sitting atop it. Fortunately, it is only two weeks into the new season so there's no real danger of Tottenham winning the title, unless there's a somewhat unanticipated asteroid strike that wipes out the 19 other teams.

Oh, there is one other tear in the space-time continuum. Remember your old imperious neighbors Manchester United, who were always lording it over City until your heroic falling-down toe poke to Sergio Aguero in the dying seconds of the QPR game in 2012 ended City's 36-year-old title drought and nearly caused Sir Alex Ferguson to spontaneously combust? Well, both the United of yore and Sir Alex are no longer around to torment you.

From Milan to Manchester, back to Milan, and now Liverpool, Balotelli has returned to the Premier League.

There's a new boss at Old Trafford named Louis van Gaal -- I won't bore you with the farcical David Moyes era in between -- and he has United up to 13th in the table. That may change somewhat with the $100 million acquisition of Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria, but in any case, you don't need to concern yourself with the Red-in-the-face Devils as a potential title contender, which I know sounds crazy given that your new club, Liverpool, measures all success in life in terms of United. Of course, given what you saw Monday at your old stomping grounds, your new teammates might want to change Manchester metrics.

There are, however, a few relevant rivals you can't afford to ignore, and since I know you're not big on external details -- didn't you fill your World Cup memory book exclusively with stickers of yourself? -- I thought I'd help ease your transition back into the hurly-burly of the Prem by bringing you up to speed on what you might have missed while you were busy wearing out your welcome in Italy.

Man City: Defending league champions

Mario, you played for them until January 2013. Your old boss, Roberto Mancini, with whom you enjoyed an equal parts combative (that training ground bust-up was truly hilarious) and affectionate ("I love Roberto," you cooed on your way out the Etihad door) relationship, is gone. The new headman is the urbane and eminently decent Manuel Pellegrini, who guided City to last season's title and has an even better head of hair than his predecessor.

You scored 30 goals for City, got sent off four times, perfected the art of non-celebration, fought with your teammates, blew up your bathtub, and mistook the reserve squad for a dartboard. Paparazzi, traffic cops and fireworks suppliers in Greater Manchester all nearly went bankrupt when City grew weary of your hijinks and packed you off to your homeland for a paltry $30 million and a case of Rolaids.

It's a genuine shame that you were not registered in time to play against your old club, as we were looking forward to your latest T-shirt to surpass your old classic: "Why always me?" After watching the 3-1 onslaught, I'd recommend something in the "uh oh" category.

Chelsea: Presumptive favorites to dethrone City

Mario, they are a London club. You like London. The nightclubs and restaurants meet your lofty standards. We will be circling Nov. 8 and locking up the children when Liverpool host Chelsea. There's no way that the game will be as exciting as the sideshow, you versus your old pal Jose Mourinho. You and Jose last exchanged pleasantries in August 2010, when the Special One apparently dubbed you "unmanageable" and shoved you out the Inter Milan door marked "Ciao," even after you had won the Champions League together.

Balotelli and Mourinho share a moment during their Inter Milan days.

Ever the trendsetter, Mourinho was the first to tire of your less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward training and your on-field tantrums, and he's the reason you had to experience so many dreadful Manchester meals. Now that you are both back in the Prem, each of you has something to prove. Mourinho has not won a major trophy in two years, and you would be wise to follow in the footsteps of another returning prodigal son, Cesc Fabregas.

The former Arsenal "I could never play for another team in this league" maestro has given Chelsea a creative hub it hasn't had since Juan Mata was sacrificed in the Great United Trade Heist of January '14. It's so painful to see one of the former lights of my life in a blue jersey that I had to avert my eyes from the screen on Saturday every time Cesc threaded a perfectly weighted pass into the path of a Chelsea attacker.

You'll notice that Jose is all business this season, going so far as to bench the iconic Petr Cech and to keep Fernando Torres as far from the field as Roman Abramovich sitting in his owner's box. Speaking of Roman, did you happen to catch him flinging his oligarch-ish arms skyward in celebration at the final whistle on Saturday after Chelsea had come back from a sluggish first half to beat Leicester 2-0? Could you believe those huge pit stains? I mean, there are products available to keep you from looking like Walter Pandiani and I'd like to think he can afford them. But I digress.

Arsenal: Trophy-winning machine

Earlier this summer, when reports surfaced that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was fluttering his eyelids at you, I must admit that most Gooners viewed your potential arrival with a high degree of skepticism. "Right," we said ever so snarkily, "maybe Arsene can offer one dollar more than Super Mario's buyout clause as we did so cheekily with Luis Suarez." Besides, Mario, weren't you once sent off against Arsenal for a wild tackle that did wonders for your popularity at the Emirates?

But then, you mischievous rogue, it emerged that your agent was actually talking with Le Professor about bringing your zany hats, fleet of Ferraris and predilection for societal mayhem to North London for a mere $250,000 per week in salary. When the most parsimonious French manager to ever stride the globe whimpered "sacre bleu", apparently your agent set a new record in the 100-meter backpedal, telling Wenger that you could possibly keep your new fiancée in bling for $150,000 per week -- a pittance for a man of your skills. Yet even for that bargain rate, Wenger still preferred to take his chances with Arsenal's three-headed striking beast of Olivier Giroud, the wrong Yaya (Sonogo) and newly acquired Chilean star Alexis Sanchez.

Eighty-three minutes into Saturday's contest at Goodison Park, I'm pretty sure that Arsene was regretting having snubbed you. Twice. God knows Arsenal could have used your goal-scoring mojo then, what with Everton 2-0 ahead and cruising. Honestly, until Giroud bouffant-ed in the equalizer in the final seconds, I would have welcomed back TGSTEL (please don't make me spell it out!) who you might have known as Nicklas Bentdner.

However, you have to give Wenger props for having the courage of his convictions. For a guy who rarely makes a non-injury-related substitution until the 60th minute, he displayed uncharacteristic boldness by mercifully ending the much-anticipated Sanchez-as-lone-striker experiment at halftime and pulling the Chilean in favor of Giroud. In fairness to the $60 million transfer from Barcelona, this was only his second game in Arsenal's ridiculously tight, hideously unattractive yellow with blue sleeves away jersey. Still, for that kind of money, we expect more, especially when a man of your talents is considered too expensive at half that price.

You would have liked playing for Arsenal, Mario. Gunner fans are equal opportunity fatalists. A couple of years ago they harried Aaron Ramsey relentlessly and this season they're spraying their knee-jerk venom at Jack Wilshere. At least we're multi-nationalist in our scapegoating, switching seamlessly from Dutch (Robin van Pursestrings) to French (Samir "The Weasel" Nasri) to Welsh to English players, and I know that we would have come up with some ingeniously crude Italian chants in your honor.

Still, Mario, you've picked an exciting young team to go to. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is a nice bloke who gets the best out of his players, captain Steven Gerrard is a legend who commits howlers only in big games, and the guy you're replacing, well, for all his goals, he never fully endeared himself to the Kop. They love an iconoclast at Anfield and I know they're going to embrace you, just as long as you don't do anything truly crazy -- like bite someone.

Buena Fortuna,

David Hirshey

David Hirshey

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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