x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli could pay ultimate penalty

Erratic behavior and a missed spot-kick has AC Milan fans frustrated with their star striker ahead of Uefa Champions League match with Celtic, writes Ian Hawkey

AC Milan's Mario Balotelli reacts during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Genoa at San Siro stadium in Milan on Saturday. Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters
AC Milan's Mario Balotelli reacts during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Genoa at San Siro stadium in Milan on Saturday. Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

A whole career could be spent trying to interpret Mario Balotelli. Certain managerial careers have been seriously hampered by the difficulties of doing so. And for much of the last two days, commentators, and pundits have devoted time and effort to earnest interpretation.

They have been trying to understand what Balotelli might have meant when he tweeted, before dawn on Sunday the words “This is the end”, followed by a smiling emoticon.

On Saturday night, Mattia Perin, the Genoa goalkeeper, also devoted a few, intense moments to interpreting Balotelli.

Most goalkeepers in Italy’s Serie A, and indeed the English Premier League, have put aside time to the study of Balotelli, specifically to his strategies with penalty kicks. At 1-1 during the match between Balotelli’s AC Milan and Perin’s Genoa at San Siro, Milan were awarded a spot-kick.

Balotelli, naturally, approached the ball. His record from 12 yards out was almost impeccable. In 22 career spot-kicks as a senior professional, he had converted 21.

“I had been studying his technique,” Perin said, “and obviously there’s a part that luck plays in these things as well. But I saw him look at me just as I was moving my body to the right. So I changed direction late.”

Balotelli struck the kick, after his customary, exaggerated pause just before effect, and Perin did not have to move too far to stop the shot. Balotelli’s aura of supremacy from the spot has now suffered unprecedented damage in just two months. He experienced the first penalty failure of his career when Napoli’s Pepe Reina denied him at the beginning of October.

Later on Saturday, police and security staff at San Siro found themselves interpreting and second-guessing Balotelli’s intentions.

It had been a toxic evening for Milan, whose draw – no goals were added after Balotelli’s saved penalty, even though Genoa played with 10 men for the last 55 minutes – extended their poor domestic form to six matches without a win, as barren a run as the club have endured in more than six years.

During the match, derision from the grandstands aimed at the team, the directors and head coach Max Allegri, was a constant, with banners accusing board members of becoming distracted by their own internal power struggles, and of operating a confused transfer policy.

Toward the end, chants threatened the players: “Meet you at midnight”, and “See you outside”.

Some 300-odd Milan followers remained in the stadium precinct long after the final whistle, blocking the players’ exit route. They made it known they wanted a face-to-face discussions with the squad.

Balotelli apparently volunteered to talk to the protesting group. Police persuaded him not to.

Instead, Kaka and Christian Abbiati, the goalkeeper, ventured out, and spoke briefly with fans, who then clapped those two players as they withdrew to their sanctuary and all of them were allowed to drive away.

It was an unsettling episode, but one which, clearly, ended better than some had feared. It may or may not have been what kept Balotelli awake, typing, at five in the morning. It may or may not have informed Balotelli’s later message: “Forza Milan, always with you”.

If that seemed a less-enigmatic statement, it was also being interpreted in a number of ways through Sunday, simply because it was Balotelli who wrote it.

He is an exceptional talent whose maverick ways are part of what make him so fascinating to teenagers with a rebellious streak and seasoned purists alike.

What he has stopped being, over the last three months, is the saviour of the Milan cause. It was a role Balotelli eased into in January after joining the Milan he grew up supporting as a boy. He scored 12 goals in 13 games, lifting Milan up the table and into a position to qualify for this season’s Champions League.

The goals have dried up, though, with none from his last six Milan outings, which is one of several concerns the club take into Tuesday night’s match at Celtic Park.

If Milan lose to Celtic, their Champions League adventure could well be over before the New Year. And that might signal the end of Balotelli’s enthusiasm for the Milan episode of his restless career.

sports@thenational.ae

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