By Carlo Garganese
It's been a miserable 2012 for AC Milan.
Dethroned as Serie A champions by the returning superpower that is Juventus, the Rossoneri endured a depressing summer transfer window - losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and a host of other club legends such as Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and Filippo Inzaghi. Financially impotent, there was no light at the end of the tunnel - the darkness only aggravated by a horrific start to the season which saw Milan win just four of their opening 13 league games.
Despite an upturn in form, which has seen them rise to seventh in the table and qualify for the Champions League last 16, Massimiliano Allegri's men are still 17 points behind league leaders Juventus, eight points off the top three, and hold little hope of beating Barcelona in Europe.
But as 2013 approaches, Milanese dreams of returning to the top at home and abroad can finally begin to be entertained.
|BALOTELLI'S CAREER STATS
The deal makes sense both financially and technically.
The Rossoneri's cost-cutting programme that saw them offload their two best players to Paris Saint-Germain - Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva - has resulted in a new self-sustaining economic model that is not reliant on owner Silvio Berlusconi's bailouts. By signing Balotelli, Milan will actually save money. Pato and Robinho's combined net salary is €8 million a year, making them two of the club's highest earners. Balotelli is expected to accept a pay cut on his current pre-tax wage of €7m a season.
Vice-president Adriano Galliani is hopeful of recouping around €25m for the South American pair. Manchester City have slapped a €20m asking price on Balotelli's head, a figure that Galliani is bound to get reduced with the player and selling club desperate to part ways. An initial loan deal in January is not out of the question.
Galliani and Berlusconi have stressed that the foundations of the 'new Milan' will be built on youth. In the 22-year-old Balotelli and 20-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy, the Rossoneri will boast a centre forward duo who can potentially lead the line for club and country for the next decade. The pair will be a terrifying prospect for teams all over Europe, and as Manchester United have shown this season in opening up a surprise seven-point lead in the Premier League, a world-class attack can often paper over the cracks further back on the field. Especially in an age where you can count on one hand the number of truly top-class defenders.
His ill-discipline - both on and off the pitch - remains an issue, but the extent of this problem has been taken out of context in the first half of 2012-13. It is patently clear that Balotelli is homesick and his troubles this campaign are chiefly down to his desperation to return to Italy. Unlike others who have wasted their God-given talent, Balotelli's strong character and love for the game will see him consistently shine at the highest level once he fully matures.
Milan are Balotelli's boyhood club, and he famously donned the Rossoneri shirt during a television show while still playing for Inter. Berlusconi and Galliani pride themselves on Milan's warm "family club" vibes and values. You rarely witness the airing of dirty linen in public or the kind of dissent that has been evident at Inter and Manchester City in recent times. Milan are the perfect club to win Mario's heart.
The signing of Balotelli will be the beginning of Milan's road back to the top. The 'new Milan' have their 'new Ibrahimovic' - a new talismanic figure around which to build a new all-conquering team. With the attack locked down for the next 10 years, Milan will be able to focus on perfecting another department. Two new centre-backs, a left-back and at least one central midfielder must be the next priorities in the January and summer markets.
Balotelli will help attract further stars to Milan, he will lift the entire club and make the fans believe once more. Although he will be ineligible for the Champions League knock-outs, and qualification for next year's edition remains a tough ask, Milan's future suddenly looks bright again.