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Aug 25, 2014

Balotelli sale illustrates Milan delusion

The ESPN FC crew debate whether the risk of bringing Mario Balotelli to Anfield is worth the potential reward.

"Today [Adriano] Galliani made the greatest deal in Milan's history," tweeted Christian Vieri following the 16 million-pound sale of Mario Balotelli to Liverpool. Quite how allowing a 24-year-old who is yet to reach his potential but still managed to score 30 goals in 54 games for the Rossoneri for the same price you paid for him 18 months ago represents "a great deal" is a mystery.

The price -- only 4 million pounds more than Southampton paid Hull City for Shane Long and 5 million more than Ross McCormack cost Fulham from Leeds United -- is so good it is, as Gab Marcotti argued, well worth Liverpool taking the risk. Make no mistake, they appear to be coming out of this better than Milan. Yet Vieri surprisingly isn't alone in holding the conviction that his old team have done good business.

"The beauty is that everybody is smiling," wrote Luigi Garlando in La Gazzetta dello Sport's lead editorial, "as if it were only a story about winners." The curious thing about Balotelli, opined Mario Sconcerti on Sky Italia, is that "champagne corks are popped when he arrives but also when he leaves." If it's understandable why Liverpool are cracking open the bubbly, why then are Milan also celebrating? La Repubblica's Giulio Cardone even went so far as to describe owner Silvio Berlusconi as "euphoric."

Balotelli's signing never seemed like his idea. Berlusconi labeled him a "rotten apple" when reports first emerged linking the then-Manchester City striker with a move to Milan, a comment for which he'd later apologise. Galliani needed to do some persuading. Call me a cynic, but Berlusconi was also running for office again at the time. Polling data showed that making a big signing like Balotelli would deliver votes, although in the end not enough for him to win.

He suffered defeat in that election and felt beaten again this summer. "I lost the World Cup, not Italy," he said, "because I was selling Balotelli to an English club for several million, but who will buy him from me now?" Asked a few days later whether Balotelli would be staying, he replied: "I believe so, yes, in the hope he learns to become a centre-forward."

Mario Balotelli failed to win over the Milanisti and made few friends playing for the club he supported as a boy.

What he meant by that was something Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had also expressed at the World Cup. Too often Balotelli comes short to involve himself in the play when instead he should concentrate on staying in the penalty area and finishing rather than starting moves.

Still, for a player who has averaged a goal every 120 minutes since turning 20, it seemed an odd criticism. Yet 53.8 percent of Balotelli's goals at Milan have been penalties (9) or free kicks (5). Only 12 of his 26 league goals have come from open play. Then you look at who they were against: 11 were put past Palermo, Catania, Pescara, Siena, Livorno and Bologna (all teams that were relegated either last season or the one before). Only three came against clubs in the top four.

Balotelli has had big moments in his career -- the "Why Always Me" game, the Premier League-winning assist for Sergio Aguero, the Euro 2012 semifinal for Italy -- but unless you count his first four months at Milan as a whole when he picked up the baton from Stephan El Shaarawy and carried them to Champions League qualification, there have been none since his return to Italy. Not in the Derby della Madonnina, nor the Derby d'Italia. There's been the spectacular. His goals against Napoli and Bologna immediately come to mind. But even if Berlusconi is a preposterous character whose private life makes Balotelli look shy and retiring, many Milan fans see where he is coming from.

"We expected a lot more from him," Giancarlo Capelli, one of the Curva Sud's head ultras, was quoted as saying to Il Corriere della Sera. "He didn't know how to make the difference." They grew frustrated with the No. 45.

A lot has been made of a drop in standards in Milan following the retirement of legends like Paolo Maldini and the exits of Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini. The new generation didn't understand what it meant to represent Milan. Too much has come to them too soon. The footage of Balotelli dodging a set of speed-and-agility hurdles at Milanello one day symbolised that.

- Robson: Balotelli wrong fit for Liverpool
- Reds want Balotelli behaviour clause
- Balotelli's long list of controversies

The Instagram photo of him playing ping pong when he was nursing a shoulder injury did too, and last weekend the video of him doing the ice bucket challenge to raise awareness about ALS just days after missing a friendly against Valencia supposedly because of a flu-like bug only raised more questions among fans about how seriously he takes his profession.

Of course, Diego Maradona wasn't a model professional either, but his transgressions were excused as long as he delivered on the pitch. For Milan fans, Balotelli didn't do so enough.

Too often he walked through games. If he moved more and allied that to his power and skill he could perhaps be a world-beater. When Sky Italia's Giancarlo Marocchi put that to him after a defeat to Roma, Balotelli responded: "You don't understand football." Fellow pundit Zvonimir Boban intervened. He'd say that with that attitude, and by never applying the slightest self-criticism, it's unlikely he will ever realise his potential. "Pure nihilism," he huffed.

"Balotelli is fundamentally a good guy. He is not a bad person, but he lives in a place that is far away from reality," former Italy coach Prandelli told Il Corriere della Sera after the World Cup. "He is only 24 and has the possibility to build on this experience."

No coach, aside from maybe Roberto Mancini, has done more for Balotelli than Prandelli. He built his Italy team around him. He mentored, indulged and protected him. Yet ultimately even he came to ask whether it was worthwhile after what happened at the World Cup. With qualification for the knockout stages at stake, Balotelli almost got himself sent off in the first half against Uruguay.

Told to change his attitude, he instead kept answering back, leaving Prandelli and the veterans exasperated. Unable to get through to him, Prandelli substituted Balotelli off for Marco Parolo. "You never know when he is nervous and when he is calm." Gigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi also appeared to have lost patience with him after the game. "We need men, not [Panini] stickers and celebrities," said De Rossi.

Mario Balotelli proved to be a wild card in Italy's group-stage fixture against Uruguay, and was substituted at halftime.

Unfairly scapegoated, Balotelli's public perception was perhaps at a low not seen since he threw his Inter shirt to the ground or his sending off for City at Arsenal. Taken together, it is perhaps why Il Corriere della Sera's Paolo Baldini claimed the mood at Milan today is one of "relief." He also added, however, that it is one of "defeat."

Milan is the club Balotelli supported as a boy. He used to wear red and black socks to training at Inter (Marco Materazzi would take the scissors to them) and drew ire for pulling on a Milan shirt while still at their rivals. Representing the club he loves, being the No. 1 player -- rather than a sub for Aguero, Carlos Tevez or Edin Dzeko -- and the responsibility that comes with it was supposed be the making of Balotelli. Closer to home and to his family, there'd be the stability he needed too. Instead, it hasn't worked out.

Is it all his fault? Don't buy that argument. Balotelli hadn't burned his bridges like he had at Inter or City; he hadn't made his position untenable. Weighing on the club's decision probably more than any of the reasons above is the financial situation at the club. Berlusconi can't spend like he used to. Fininvest, the holding company, wants to wean Milan off his patronage and for it to become self-sustainable in an FFP era.

Shortfalls in revenues, then, like those that come when you miss out on the Champions League, hit hard. All of Milan's business this summer, apart from making Adil Rami's move permanent for 4.2 million euros, has been done on frees: Michael Agazzi, Diego Lopez, Alex, Jeremy Menez, Pablo Armero (on loan). By selling Kevin Constant, and getting Kaka and (finally) Robinho (another Mino Raiola client) off the payroll, they have raised and saved some cash. But not enough to buy a player new coach Pippo Inzaghi would really like -- Torino's Alessio Cerci.

The Balotelli money will allow Milan to make that deal happen. A front three of El Shaarawy (restored to his best position and formation), Giampaolo Pazzini and Cerci wouldn't be bad even though two-thirds of that trio is very injury-prone, and backup, particularly at centre-forward, is lacking.

Milan have given themselves only 10 days to find another forward. You have to question their judgement. They have lost one of the most compelling things about them. Without Balotelli (and Kaka), history, tradition and prestige aside, their appeal to the neutral diminishes. It's a shame. Somehow, they don't see it that way.

James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a European football writer who contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.

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