By Jeremy Lim
From the day Zlatan Ibrahimovic abruptly packed up his bags and departed from AC Milan, her adoring public has been obsessing for someone who can replicate the Swede's performances of mercurial magnitude. Now, with Mario Balotelli's equally-abrupt return to Serie A with the rejuvenated former Serie A champions, I believe the club's fans can be forgiven for finally seeing the silver lining to their dark cloud.
Witnessing the English being treated to his live-wire performances for Manchester City while the media crucified him, as they are doing with Luis Suarez at this moment, felt like a sheer waste of talent. Indeed, back now in the red half of Milan, he will come to associate with the feeling of his gifts being truly appreciated, and could finally blossom into the world-beater everyone believed he would become all of three years ago.
The 22-year-old's athleticism, mobility, penchant for the impossible and ability to deliver on the biggest stages ought to place him in good stead to enjoy more than half the success Ibrahimovic became a crowd favourite at San Siro for, at least on paper. Along with fellow prodigy Stephan El Shaarawy, Balotelli promises to answer the Rossoneri's cry for goals with aplomb, propelling the squad to believe further in a Champions League spot come season's end, and perhaps to even topple mighty Barcelona, as their gargantuan European fixture looms in February.
However, I'm concerned whether coach Massimiliano Allegri can overcome the challenge of best bringing Balotelli's natural match-winning ability - as the new signing proved to possess in abundance during City's victorious league campaign last term, and Italy's stellar Euro 2012 journey - to the fore. The tactical acumen of the under-fire boss has come under scrutiny this year, and how he handles his superstar's integration threatens to make-or-break his future on the bench.
Is Balotelli mature enough to lead the line on his own, as the designated goalscorer at the tip of a trident attack which has paid dividends over the past month? Or will he require a similar partner-in-crime via a two-man attack to flourish, a scenario that will almost guarantee French sensation M'Baye Niang be dropped back to the bench, in spite of his impressive performances of late?
Although most coaches would covet such widespread tactical options at their behest, it's a coin toss to claim such assets will only be lost on Allegri, leading to a potential conundrum for the tactician.
Not a name you would associate with switching between formations at the drop of a hat, the embattled 45-year-old has at long last righted the Milan ship, painstakingly restoring some semblance of order in a woefully-equipped side that struggled so much early on. Balotelli's arrival merely opens a can of worms on which approach to adopt entering a match, just when everyone celebrated the perceived discovery of a solution.
Then there is the age-old question about the enigmatic striker's temperament and sense of judgement. While Allegri has succeeded in keeping a lid on difficult characters like the afore-mentioned Ibrahimovic, plus Robinho and Philippe Mexes, and at the same time accounting for Balotelli taking to his new trainer's laissez faire style of management more readily after falling out with Roberto Mancini's iron-fisted rule, we'd still be referring to a potential minefield out there. The management and his team-mates will have to be on their guard for those familiar, poorly-timed meltdowns.
Finally, there is the issue of how director Adriano Galliani managed to concentrate all his focus and transfer resources on the €20 million deal for the attacker, when it is really a desperate rearguard that stakes claims for reinforcements. Despite Mattia De Sciglio bursting onto the scene, Alessandro Nesta's and Thiago Silva's departures have left a gaping hole inadequately plugged by Mario Yepes and Daniele Bonera.
While it is important to win games - and Milan have an ability to do so now in spades - I believe not losing ought to carry more weight, especially given the position Allegri finds himself in. With a leaky defence and unstable backline, it is hard to comprehend why they made no significant effort this winter to re-sign Davide Astori from Cagliari, who were tempted into a sale by Southampton's overtures.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to strive for perfection in football, as with all matters, and Milan, as well as Italian football fans in general, should feel no small amount of optimism after what is likely to be the biggest deal this January transfer market was wrapped up.
That said, I maintain my reservations, and believe it for the best not to get carried away at this moment either, for it is only on the pitch that Balotelli will be able to answer the questions pertaining to his and his team's fortunes.