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Mario Balotelli and AC Milan: A new dawn?

After a season of mediocre football and little chance of Champions League qualification, Super Mario's Milanese re-energisation couldn't be more timely. The question is: will it last?

Claudio Villa

Watching AC Milan early on this season was an exercise so painful it would have been almost more pleasant if Max Allegri just beat you over the head with the rolling pin the rossoneri had used to squeeze out any semblance of footballing excitement in their squad. Skip forward a few months, and they suddenly sound -- perish the thought -- exciting.

The arrival of Mario Balotelli and emergence of M'Baye Niang has suddenly given Serie A's worst best team reason for optimism. Paired with Stephan El Shaarawy, on whom Milan have heavily relied to keep their fans sane -- and score some goals too -- they have a potentially potent attack, not to mention added credibility for their youth-orientated transfer policy.

With Giampaolo Pazzini underperforming, Milan have been desperate for a main central striker. Thus, Massimiliano Allegri should have no problems slotting Balotelli into Milan's attack right away. His best position is in the middle rather than out on the flank, and with El Shaarawy an outstanding counter-attacking threat out left, they should blend perfectly. Widely seen as the future of the Italian national team, their mutual understanding will only be further developed domestically.

Allegri has struggled throughout the season to decide on Milan's best shape. In the arrival of Balotelli, the 4-3-3 decision has been made for him. El Shaarawy has stated: "I like playing wide left, it is the role I prefer the most, and allows me to alternate attacking and defending." With Balotelli's touch, strength and finishing, he's more suited to playing centrally, offering a mobility and quality that Pazzini can't match.

Niang, who has been preferred on the right, is still only 18, and having made just three league starts for Milan, is still something of an unknown quantity. Unlike his attacking counterparts who have established themselves already, he has a little more work to do before he's fully trusted. Early signs, however, are good.

That Super Mario is the big boy of the trio at 22 is exciting -- and, admittedly, more than a little alarming. His arrival completes a strike force of genuine quality, and one built for an instant impact, with a simultaneous eye on the long term future. The question, however, is not so much whether it will work, but if it will last.

Balotelli's eccentricity is one of the most hackneyed of all footballing narratives, and his need to mature rehashed so often it isn't surprising that he's a little loco. Notwithstanding, he clearly has the potential to be problematic. Suggesting that his move back to Italy will see instantaneously grow out of his immaturity is obviously naïve, as is the hope that Max Allegri will tame him in a manner that not even Roberto Mancini has been able to.

He could feasibly turn up at training and concuss a reserve with a free kick mannequin on his first day at Milanello, or blind a Primavera star with a plastic cone. It may be obvious, but this unpredictability is the biggest threat to Milan's new venture. There is, of course, the chance that he'll fit in perfectly.

The diavolo are the club which Balotelli has supported as a boy. With his ambition fulfilled, he may well go on to establish himself more for his on-field exploits than those off-field. Through the haze of his well-publicised -- and perhaps overly-exaggerated antics -- it's easy to forget his scoring record is excellent.

It wouldn't take much for him to become a prolific striker, alongside El Shaarawy who is already eyeing the the Serie A Golden Boot. What's more, Balotelli is arriving at a watershed moment. It's not just in attack where Milan are investing in youth. Be it full-back Mattia De Sciglio, newly signed centre-back Bartosz Salamon, the soon-to-arrive winger/trequartista Riccardo Saponara or any of the aforementioned attacking trident, it's clear that they're taking the patient approach to squad rebuilding.

In retrospect, the redevelopment of their team after the loss of so many important veterans was going to come with teething problems. They are issues which initially were addressed -- or not, as the case has been -- with the purchases of ageing, mediocre players, which were never going to be sufficient in challenging a Juventus team growing stronger at an exponential rate.

The morale among the squad and supporters had sunk even lower than Milan's league position. But, now, as shown in the scenes outside the Milanese restaurant on the evening on Balotelli's arrival, the spark is back. Whether or not it stays, is in no small part down to him.