Written off by many, Balotelli now returning to top form
ABS-CBN Sports on Jan 19, 2018 06:57 AM
FILE - In this Sunday, March 6, 2016 file photo, AC Milan's Mario Balotelli looks down during a Serie A soccer match against Sassuolo, at Reggio Emilia's Mapei stadium, Italy. Mario Balotelliís return to top form with Nice owes much to the astute guidance of coach Lucien Favre. He has matched his career-best 18 goals and is thriving on the responsibility of leading Niceís attack. (AP Photo/Marco Vasini, file)
By Jerome Pugmire, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — Mario Balotelli's return to form at Nice owes much to the astute guidance and firm belief of coach Lucien Favre.
When Favre signed the Italian forward on a free transfer from Liverpool last season, some observers ridiculed his chances of success after Balotelli had endured two poor campaigns.
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher derided the move, saying on Twitter that paying nothing was "over the odds" for a player carrying such a troublesome reputation.
But Balotelli is a player transformed, sharp and hungry for goals. The temperamental Italian, renowned for his antics on and off the field, now appears fully focused on his career.
Thanks to his goals, Nice has overcome a terrible start to the season and is up to sixth place ahead of Sunday's home game against Saint-Etienne.
"When he makes the effort, makes the difference, things are much easier for us," said Favre. "He's more committed in training and he's making a lot of progress in terms of his tracking back. He's even closing down (opponents) sometimes."
Chasing defenders and harrying midfielders? Who would have thought it of Balotelli? Definitely not Carragher.
Balotelli has scored 12 league goals this season and is performing in big games, having netted both in a 2-2 draw at defending champion Monaco on Tuesday. He also grabbed two in a 4-0 home win against Monaco earlier in the season.
"Whenever he gets a chance he's very, very dangerous," Favre said. "It's down to him to help himself and to help us."
Balotelli has scored 18 goals in all competitions this season, including five in seven Europa League games.
It is his best total since 2013-14, when he also bagged 18 for AC Milan. He joined Liverpool the following season before returning to Milan on loan.
His last international goal came against England at the 2014 World Cup and he has not played for Italy since. Two years earlier, he netted twice in a European Championship semifinal win against Germany.
Joining Nice, in a league with a lower profile than England or Italy, has taken pressure off one of the game's most fragile personalities.
"Balotelli is like Russian roulette," Marseille defender Rod Fanni once said. "Everything's good if his head's in the right place, everything's wrong if his mind is elsewhere."
But thanks to Favre's understanding approach, and indulgent teammates, he has found his way back.
"He's also playing well because the team accepts him how he is," Favre said. "He's listening and he must carry on like this because the team needs him."
It is clear Balotelli, often used to fierce criticism, is thriving on responsibility.
There was a sign of that Tuesday when he turned in Allan Saint-Maximin's cross from the right before rushing to his teammate and hugging him for the assist. Normally, Balotelli doesn't display emotion.
His second goal against Monaco showed the confidence flowing through him. Taking a pass with his back to goal 30 meters out, he cushioned it on his left foot, switched it instantly onto his right and pirouetted in one swift movement. He then made a surging run before clipping a shot into the corner of the net.
It was the kind of goal he used to score for Inter Milan, where he burst onto the scene as a gifted 17-year-old, and occasionally for Manchester City.
Nice expects to sell him at the end of this season. He will have one year left on his contract and, at the age of 28, will be at his peak.
Balotelli, in his current mood, could prove a bargain buy for a top club.