What next for Balotelli after latest Italy snub?
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Mario Balotelli wasn't named in the Italy squad. Roberto Mancini claims he wasn't "100%". He suffered through Balo's antics at Inter Milan and Manchester City. Is the Azzurri boss making a convenient excuse? Is there another major tournament in the 28-year-old's future?
Balotelli sent a clear message with recent goal celebrations; he's enjoying football again. He reached out for his phone, filmed and uploaded to Instagram Story against St Etienne. His derby strike was followed by a game of rock, paper, scissors with Florian Thauvin. There were even reports that he intended to unveil a Marcus Rashford t-shirt had scored in the Le Classique against Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday.
The Italian's Marseille switch was a case of desperation meet desperation. Still searching for the form that lit up Euro 2012, he took the risk to cross over to the south coast in January. The maverick 28-year-old sort Mancini’s attention not minding the direct consequences on his career.
Les Phoceens, meanwhile, deteriorated drastically since the Europa League defeat by Atletico Madrid in May. They picked up just one win in 11 games, a run which includes a shocking Coupe de France exit at the hands of fourth-tier ASF Andrezieux. Despite placed seventh, The Olympians were much closer to 19th placed Dijon than Lille in second. Garcia didn't mind Balo's drama, as long he performed with goals.
Mission achieved. Marseille climbed to fourth, six points behind Lyon in the final Champions League qualification zone. They've only lost two games since February, winning five of their last seven matches. Balotelli was crucial. He made an instant statement on his debut against Lille, then plundered four others including against his former employers.
It wasn't enough to earn a cherished Azzurri return, however. Mancini again snubbed the 28-year-old for not reaching peak form as he prepares for the start of Italy's Euro 2020 qualification campaign. While admitting that his ex-protege has improved, he reckons more work needs to be done.
“Mario is not yet in an optimal condition to play for the national team. He has improved physically compared to September but can still improve. From him I expect a lot, he’s nearly 29 years old, he’s at his peak, and for the national team he must give the maximum.”
Mancini and Balo's relationship is like a fiery love affair, peace after every fight. ‘Mancio' as he is fondly called in Italy always had a soft spot for his wild child despite the Palermo-born forward's overbearing misdeeds. It was Mancini who promoted the attacker at Inter. The pair then reunited in Manchester to clinch the FA Cup and Premier League.
It wasn't a nab the 54-year-old requested for Balo when he was appointed Italy coach in May. Although his coming represented a clean slate for everyone, the Marseille ma topped the pile. The gaffer even admitted he missed Balo, offering a return from a four-year international exile.
Balo responded in style. The former Inter, Milan and Liverpool man played against Saudi Arabia in May 2018 and scored after 11 minutes. He also appeared in the friendly defeat to France a few days later. His return passed without incident, his re-integration was complete. It was a victory for Mancini.
There could deeper rot behind the latest snub. Mancini may be fed up holding Balo's hands. Goals aside, the 28-year-old typifies disunity who could ultimately cripple the next phase Mancio is building. The manager gave the warning in January. “I've done my best’ for Mario Balotelli, who has ‘given me very little” and “I'll call up Fabio Quagliarella if he keeps scoring”. He did.
Aside from the 36-year-old, Juventus starlet Moise Kean is the only out-and-out striker in Italy's squad. The handwriting is clear. Perhaps Mancini views the 19-year-old as the next Balo.