At Nice, Mario Balotelli appears to have found the right environment for his talents to flourish.
It says something that when Italian national team coach Giampiero Ventura met with the media on Monday of this week, ahead of Thursday’s prestige World Cup qualifier against Spain in Turin, he found himself fielding questions about a player who is not only not in his current squad but who has also not played for Italy since the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
No prizes for quessing that eternal “Bad Boy” Mario Balotelli is the player in question. In the week that he is preparing for the first big test of his stewardship of the Italian national team, coach Ventura could probably have done without questions about Balotelli.
However, such has been the impact in Italy of Balotelli’s seemingly excellent start to the latest chapter in his career, with Nice in France, that media observers are beginning to wonder. Can “SuperMario” rekindle a top flight career which, essentially, went off the rails following an excellent showing for Italy in the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
On Sunday, Balotelli scored his fifth goal of the Ligue 1 season when he struck an 86th minute winner for Nice in a 2-1 home win over Lorient. That decisive goal follows on from equally important goals scored in early season “derby” games against “Midi” rivals Olympique Marseilles and Monaco.
Most remarkable of all, Nice are enjoying a magical moment, top of the table on 20 points after winning six and drawing two of their eight games so far. For the time being, Nice are one point clear of second placed Monaco and four points clear of reigning champions Paris Saint Germain in third.
It was hardly surprising then that Ventura should be questioned about Balotelli, at his best arguably the outstanding Italian striker of his generation. It was interesting too that, despite his track record as a “difficult” player, coach Ventura was careful not to close the door in his face, saying:
“There is no question about his quality (as a player), it is all the rest that matters. I have said before that no one is ruled out, a priori…He has started to score goals again but you do not get back into the national team with goals alone, you have to be consistent…I will take into consideration anyone who can make an important contribution to Italy but this has to happen in the right circumstances…”
What precisely those “right circumstances” mean remains to be clarified. Certainly, it probably does not much help Ventura that the once much-used epithet, “SuperMario”, is beginning to find its way back onto the front pages of even authorative sports daily L’Equipe. Ventura could do without the hype.
Yet, no less than Bayern Munich coach, Carlo Ancelotti, is cautiously optimistic about Balotelli, telling Gazzetta Dello Sport last week: “Perhaps in Nice, he has found the right place, the right environment to ally his talent to consistency”.
Nice coach Lucien Favre, however, sounded a note that rings out as more familiar when he said after that recent 4-0 win over Monaco: “Tonight he scored the goals well and at an important time…but we all know that he has a lot of work to do, in relation to his movements, his understanding with his team mates…
“I think he has got to keep on going like this. He will get back to a good level if he acts as a professional, to the very tips of his fingers. That is fundamental when you are coming back from the sort of seasons he has had when he has not played much… he must be professional, get plenty of sleep and look after himself…”
Whilst a call-up for Balotelli for this difficult tie against Spain would clearly have been premature given that, as his club coach Favre explained, he still has some way to go to get back to anything near his best, the intriguing possibility remains that Ventura may call him up next time, for the November international games. Will the Italian coach be tempted to bring him back in the relatively “easy” context of an away World Cup qualifier against minnow Liechtenstein on November 12th? Or will he give him a run-out in the prestige friendly against Germany in Milan, three days later?
In the meantime, Ventura has more pressing problems on his mind in the shape of that qualifier against Spain at the Juventus Stadium in Turin on Thursday night. All the indications would suggest that Ventura will stick with the 3-5-2 line up which won Italy’s opening qualifier last month, defeating Israel 3-1 in Haifa.
As in Haifa, too, the Italian team is likely to have a very “Conte” look about it, with Buffon, Bonucci and Barzagli in defence, with De Sciglio, Verratti and Candreva in midfield and with Eder and Pellè up front. More of that later in the week…