Stage is set for Balotelli in Brazil
Putting aside all the frustration, annoyance and disappointment that Mario Balotelli often makes his most ardent supporters endure, the Milan and Italy striker has the opportunity to further announce himself in the coming days. After a game-winning goal in Italy's World Cup opener against England on Saturday, "Super Mario" must now kick on and become a star of the tournament.
- Horncastle: Expect Balotelli to blossom in Brazil
The 23-year-old's maturity is often brought into question by his detractors, but there is evidently something about pulling on the Azzurri shirt that brings out the best in him. While he was isolated at times vs. England in Manaus, his patience, his ability to hold up the ball for his teammates, and his general sacrifice for the team were positive aspects of an ultimately game-defining performance.
Whether is it the responsibility that Italy manager Cesare Prandelli places on Balotelli's shoulders, or the pride and motivation to perform for his country on the biggest of stages that drives him, Balotelli can use this tournament as an indication of how good he can be. The question is whether he can add consistency to his performances at club level.
While it was a complicated campaign at times last season for the emotional striker, there are no doubts about what he is capable of representing for the Rossoneri both on and off the pitch. Milan are quietly strengthening the squad while eyes are focused on Brazil, but it is still unclear at this stage whether it is with a view of building around their star man.
Speculation has previously suggested that Milan will re-evaluate their position if Balotelli has an impressive tournament, which in turn would inevitably impact his value in the transfer market.
However, to consider selling the former Manchester City man would be a mistake, and it is hoped that his showing in Brazil reaffirms his importance to the club, rather than focusing attention on his enhanced price tag.
Nevertheless, having removed the pressure of scoring his first goal of the tournament, Balotelli should be able to play with more freedom moving forward, and as shown at the Confederations Cup last year, he is undoubtedly one of the more popular stars at the World Cup with the locals.
Similar to Euro 2012 and the aforementioned Confederations Cup, Italy will require more from Balotelli as the tournament progresses, and his ability to react to that responsibility will be an intriguing indication to Milan supporters of how he can grow into a leader in the coming years.
Milan legend Paolo Maldini insisted this week that Balotelli has "reached the age where you should be mature," and that while it is the right time for him to give more than he has thus far, his great start to the World Cup is significant.
Unsurprisingly, rumours of an exit will continue given the situation that Milan find themselves in, with a potentially lengthy rebuilding process ahead of them.
However, Balotelli can be a key protagonist next season as Milan look to qualify for the Champions League, which is the minimum requirement, according to AC Milan chief Barbara Berlusconi. And if Balotelli's improved maturity continues, it should be made clear to the supporters and interested parties that he isn't on the market this summer.
For all the latest Milan and Serie A news, you can follow me on Twitter @italiafooty