“Changed” AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli has pledged to continue defying crunching tackles on the pitch and taunts from rival fans off it after hitting his first goal for the Rossoneri since returning to the club.
“They will take my legs and yellow cards, but they won’t get the ball from me,” Balotelli said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win against Udinese. On what was his first start for Milan since returning to the club on loan from Liverpool, Balotelli struck a superb fifth-minute free kick.
It was his first start in an any official league game since April 28 when Liverpool faced Hull City, and his first goal for Milan since April, 2014, when he found the net against Livorno. Milan’s third win of the season fired Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side up to fourth in the Serie A table ahead of the rest of the midweek fixtures on Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite being cautioned for a late challenge on Udinese midfielder Bruno Fernandes, for the rest of the encounter the 25-year-old Balotelli showed his growing maturity, soaking up abuse from home fans and a number of late challenges. Known for his extravagant haircuts, wayward behaviour and an attitude that many pundits have described as “arrogant’, Balotelli was forced to agree to a strict code of conduct before being able to re-sign for the seven-time European champions last month.
So far, club bosses have been impressed with his efforts. Despite having his driving licence suspended two weeks ago for driving his Lamborghini at 90km/h in a 50km/h zone, Balotelli is not, according to Mihajlovic, the impetuous, wild youngster he’s often cast as in the media.
“He’s shown that the real Balotelli is back. He was calm and showed he knows how to handle attempts to provoke him,” said Mihajlovic, who took over from Filippo Inzaghi in the summer. “He made the difference for us, but he has to continue like this because it’s only the beginning.”
Balotelli’s detractors are less likely to be convinced – at least not yet. During a turbulent three-year spell at Manchester City, Balotelli regularly courted controversy on and off the pitch, famously falling out with City’s then manager Roberto Mancini before signing for Milan in January 2013. But club CEO Adriano Galliani insisted: “He’s a changed man compared to before.”
If Balotelli is to save his career, both at club and international level, impeccable behaviour will be required throughout this season. The striker, and the entire Italy team failed to impress at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil and his subsequent disaster at Liverpool dropped him down the Azzurri pecking order behind the likes of Southampton striker Graziano Pelle.
Balotelli hopes to be reconsidered for selection to the Italian national team ahead of next summer’s European Championships, and Monday’s performance suggested he was on the right track. “For me it was a difficult game because I knew I’d be provoked,” he said. “I’m happy with how I played, little by little I’m returning to form, and soon I will be able to silence the people who have been criticising me.”