Balotelli's brilliance papers over cracks for sorry Milan
Mario Balotelli brought a turbulent week to a close in the only way he knows how - by scoring a wonder goal and then looking completely nonchalant.
It looked as though Milan were heading towards a draw in Friday night's meeting with Bologna, with the game goalless heading into the final four minutes. But then came the Italian's screamer from nearly 40 yards, which clocked in at just under 100km/hr. It handed Clarence Seedorf's men all three points and, more than anything, gave the Serie A strugglers a much-needed boost ahead of their Champions League tussle with Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.
But the man who provided that timely lift was in no mood to celebrate, having once again come under a sustained period of scrutiny both on and off the pitch. A paternity wrangle with a former partner had recently been settled, with a DNA test confirming Balotelli's fatherhood of the child on the eve of the recent defeat at Napoli.
The fact Mario's former partner happened to live in Naples only seemed to add to his tension, and cameras caught him weeping on the bench at the San Paolo after his substitution in the 3-1 loss. There was plenty of speculation about the tears and his ability to handle pressure, especially when it comes to showcasing his talents in the World Cup Finals this summer.
Like any other person who had been informed they were a parent, the 23-year-old was slightly overcome, but had his moment in the public eye rather than in private. During his time at Manchester City, Balotelli complained that the press in the UK had been intrusive away from the pitch, but that has also been the case back home where reports of a nightclub bust-up caught the headlines, as did his most recent hair cut.
After his public meltdown in Naples, La Gazzetta dello Sport devoted a double-page spread to an ailing Mario at the start of the week, bringing a manner of 'experts' into the debate from former coaches to psychology professors.
Seedorf was also cornered into having his say: the Dutch maestro made a reasonable comment that his young charge was far from the finished article, but would become “a champion” in the future. Naturally, the press turned it around to suggest he didn't think Balotelli was yet a star, which led to renewed speculation that the striker would be on his way at the end of the season.
As honeymoon periods go, Balotelli has never really had one. “I don't have a relationship with the press,” he declared. Perhaps understandably, he has history of giving more-than-cursory interviews about his ever-changing hair cuts and why he likes driving a top-of-the-range sports car really, really fast.
Seedorf is another outsider the Italian press have never really warmed to - mainly because he comes across as highly confident in everything he does. So when word got out that he had been called to dinner with Silvio Berlusconi in the wake of the Napoli setback, it was all too easy to speculate that the owner had already given his new man an ultimatum: “don’t show me up in the Champions League”.
Adriano Galliani, who was also present, had to put the record straight and claimed that the dinner had been an enjoyable evening between those who hold each other in great esteem. Certainly there is no indication that the Milan management are going to press the panic button so soon after getting rid of Massimiliano Allegri.
However, that defeat at Napoli had hit everyone hard, and with the team outside the top 10, their chances of European football next season rested on beating the likes of Bologna at home. A sparse attendance of under 30,000 inside the San Siro was testimony not only to the visitors' lack of appeal on a drizzly St. Valentine’s night, but also how disheartened the home fans had become.
There were quite a few disgruntled souls making for the exit just before Balotelli decided to liven things up with his thunderbolt out of the blue - but suddenly there was a different atmosphere inside the Rossoneri camp, even if the scorer still looked down in the dumps.
Yet Milan had toiled throughout the match, failing to provide free-flowing football and, despite enjoying nearly 70% possession, they produced only four shots on goal. Seedorf started with QPR loanee Adel Taarabt on the left flank, Kakà in a more central role and another new signing, Keisuke Honda, on the right side. Balotelli was the lone striker.
Riccardo Montolivo and Nigel de Jong were entrusted with providing for the team's creative trio, but only Taarabt injected a sense of adventure in his play. Kakà looked physically spent, while Honda seems to be suffering from the cultural shock of adapting to Italian football's close marking and blanket defending.
Until his moment of magic, Super Mario had looked completely uninterested in what was going on around him. That was, of course, until he drew back his foot to sensationally transform a goalless draw into the crucial 1-0 victory that Milan can only hope will be the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes.
Balotelli’s calls for the press to let him get on with playing football will no doubt go unheeded, but at the same time he will have enjoyed the superlatives greeting his goal. He was even named joint man of the match with his marker, the gnarly 34-year-old Cesare Natali who had hardly allowed him a touch all night.
Mario's moment has silenced his doubters for now, and regardless of his mood or how dreary it might be in Milan on Wednesday evening, the opening bars of the Champions League anthem have always had a galvanising effect at the San Siro.