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Apr 10, 2012

Milan clubs ready to rescue Mario

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, we have to come to the conclusion Roberto Mancini's trip to the holy site of Medjiugorie, located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, did not do him much good on a short-term basis. Mancini flew there two weeks ago and understandably, as a devout Christian, would not even want to hear silly jokes about his visit having material ramifications, such as Manchester City's quest to win the Premier League. Or Mario Balotelli's behaviour.

The juxtaposition of former altar boy Mancini and troubled young man Balotelli for the sole purpose of creating a contrast would be almost irresistible, but it would also be wrong, as everyone knows Mancini was no angel as a player and in fact his strong-mindedness and irascibility represented some of his greatest assets.

He once made menacing gestures towards the press box after scoring against Germany in the 1988 European Championships, letting out his anger at being criticised by the Italian media for his inability to translate his club form into a more solid contribution for the Azzurri. Seeing him as a coach with a disciplinarian streak brings to mind an old English saying involving the words "poacher" and "gamekeeper".

Mancini, though, directed 99% of his flair towards producing on the pitch; Balotelli, whose on-field and off-field antics have become too much even for his coach to bear, has alternated moments of sublime play with too many flashes of self-destruction - not to mention the early, studs-up tackle on Alex Song on Sunday.

Since he was sent off near the end of an unproductive afternoon at the Emirates, Balotelli has again been at the centre of speculation regarding his future, not least because Mancini himself said he would probably try to sell his striker over the summer.

Now, questions over Mancini's own status at Manchester City may render the Balotelli sale controversy hollow, but what has Mario's latest clash with common sense sparked over here in Italy? Monday's papers had not a word about Balotelli, for one simple reason: Easter Monday is one of only three days when newspapers are not published in Italy. Their online versions, though, deflagrated with comments about Mario, Mancini and Manchester City's likely loss of any chance of winning the title. And Tuesday's papers had Mario all over the place: Corriere dello Sport devoted its first three pages to him and his plight, for example, with in-depth speculation - or is that an oxymoron? - about his future and a possible transfer back to Italy. Transfer talk, in fact, seems to attract Italian viewers and readers much more than the game itself, sadly.

Manchester City and Balotelli have been ever-present in Italy's living rooms, after all. City's games have been shown live on Sky Italy all season, as the "Italian angle" has been given the preference over more attractive and close games. That is sometimes annoying for those of us who would like to learn more about Jack Colback or Scott Sinclair and less about how great City's Italian backroom staff - with the occasional mention of Newcastle United's Davide Santon, who's not a trendy topic over here - is.

If Mario is indeed sold, there's only two clubs he may join in Italy, and their names are, predictably, Inter and Milan. Juventus, who've had a fantastic season and will be boosted by a €35 million shirt sponsorship deal with Jeep-Chrysler (part of the Fiat empire now, so that's not really an independent sponsorship), may look at him as a surprise coup but you have to wonder how he would fit in with Antonio Conte's gung-ho, relentless approach. So it's back to Inter or Milan.

Silvio Berlusconi, who was recently re-elected as Milan president (surprise, surprise), once said Balotelli had a "Milan face", a concept as hard to pinpoint in its real meaning as the "Milan [or Juve, or Inter] style" the media have been deluding themselves and the unsuspecting public with for decades.

Balotelli may have been a closet Milan fan for years, before he came out some time ago, but this is not going to have an influence over whether he'll sign for them. In fact, before Berlusconi stepped in and vetoed the sale of Pato to PSG in January, Carlos Tevez had been the Manchester City striker Milan were trying to purchase. Tevez's price at the time would have been much lower than Balotelli's now, even accounting for Mario's antics. As for Balotelli's position on the pitch, Max Allegri would have no trouble finding a place for him in the side. Wait, is Allegri going to be Milan's coach next season? Oh, never mind.

As for Inter, technical director Marco Branca had noted even before Sunday's events that the Nerazzurri like to keep an eye on all former players who are still good enough to come back and Balotelli is among them. Inter still have a clause allowing them to buy Mario back if they match another club's offer.

The power of Mario's manager, the influential Mino Raiola, should not be underestimated, either. Raiola has seemed to be more at ease dealing with Milan than Inter, of late, after he helped steer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Rossoneri two years ago. Business is business and considerations like that might change in the time it takes Balotelli to light a firework.

One last angle concerns Cesare Prandelli and Italy. When he drew up an ethics code, the national team coach probably did not expect he'd need it so much. During his time in charge, less than two years, Prandelli has had to deal with indiscretions by the usual suspects, and Balotelli has now presented him with yet another reason to worry. Being sent off for two bookable offences does not equate to kung-fu kicking a fan at Selhurst Park, and Balotelli has already called Prandelli to state his case. But it added to a list of awkward moments the Italy manager has had to deal with, and assessing the relative severity of each of them has proved another problem.

Why, he was asked, was Gianluigi Buffon kept in the squad for last month's friendly against the USA even after he said he'd never tell the referee that Sulley Muntari's header in the Milan-Juventus match had crossed the line - even if he had known it? Why was he allowed to stay while Balotelli was left out for his stamp on Scott Parker? Why was Daniele de Rossi called up despite being left out of the Roma squad at Atalanta after being late for a meeting?

As much as Prandelli twists and turns around the rules he himself set, Mario's behaviour will always provide him with yet another awkward angle - despite the fact Balotelli apologised for his sending off at Arsenal and reiterated his desire to be in the squad for the European Championships.

We will know what the latest Balotelli controversy means for Italy much sooner than about his possible summer transfer: Prandelli has an Italy get-together scheduled for April 23-24 and he will reveal his list on April 22. Hold your breath until then.

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