When Mario Balotelli agreed to join Nice as a free agent in 2016, many mocked his drop from being the star at Euro 2012 to playing in Ligue 1, while others saw this as the Italian’s last chance to save his career.
The former Inter Milan youngster had failed at Liverpool, leaving Anfield with just four goals in 28 games.
Even a loan move back to the San Siro didn’t work, scoring just one Serie A goal in 20 appearances for AC Milan. In football terms, Balotelli was on his knees.
Nice offered salvation, and the striker has grabbed it with both hands.
In two seasons, the 27-year-old has found the net 38 times in just 57 games, he helped Les Aiglons finish third last season, and this term they’ve recovered from a poor start and sit in the top half behind the Italian’s 13 goals.
After his great first campaign, Nice took the option to extend his contract with their one-year option, but this summer, Balotelli will become a free agent.
Staying in the south of France is not an option and his agent Mino Raiola admitted recently he is in talks with clubs from both Italy and England.
“Mario is ready to return, he has matured into one of the top ten strikers in the world,” the super-agent, who also represents Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba, told Rai Sports.
“In Italy he’s number one. He’s worth €100million (£88million), but he’s on a free transfer and is therefore a bargain.
“I’m negotiating with many clubs in England and in Italy. I’ve spoken with Juventus, Roma, Napoli and Inter.”
The teams mentioned are all good options, but unless they see their forwards leave in the summer, Balotelli most likely have to play as a back-up. That’s not going to work for a player with Mario’s personality.
Premier League clubs would see his signing as a risk, but from what he’s shown in France, he’s worth a second look.
What does Balotelli bring?
Liverpool’s problem was expecting too much from the Italian. What Nice have done well, is work to the forward’s strengths.
You don’t want him to work back on defence, you don’t want him as the link-up man. He’s not an Olivier Giroud, he’s not a target man.
What Balotelli does is put the ball in the back of the net. He plays on the shoulder of the last defender, will get in between centre-backs and time his moment to strike.
For the goal above, the former Inter striker moves behind the line, straying offside only to come over the top at the last second, getting in front of Kamil Glik – one of the league’s best centre-backs – to apply the left-footed finish.
When the ball is on the wings, you can see the former Manchester City forward constantly adapting his position in the area, using the movement of his team-mates to his advantage.
He is always waiting for a half-yard of space which will let him find the back of the net.
Yet, he’s still Balotelli, and he still possesses the power in his right foot to score from distance.
You can’t stand off him, and although he isn’t going to jink past you and create his own opportunities, if you put the right people around him, he’ll find them with good vision and passing ability.
Averaging 4.4 shots per 90 minutes, he has an expected goals rate of 0.65 per 90, which is fifth in the league among players who have played 13 games or more.
A threat inside and outside, 2.3 of his attempts are from beyond the 18-yard box, but eight of his goals have come from within the penalty area.
Where could Balotelli play?
Due to his failure to produce at Liverpool and his need to be a starter, you can almost rule out a move to any of the top six.
Although he’s a bargain, and his skillset would lend perfectly to him playing behind the likes of Álvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane, coming off the bench could lead to more cons than pros.
You almost need him to be playing to occupy his mind, keeping him away from the off-field issues which plagued his time at City. Those incidents have all but disappeared while in France, but you don’t want to take that chance.
Although Nice are not considered a big team, the south of France is a desirable destination to work and live. There is nowhere similar in the UK.
He’s unlikely to favour a return to Merseyside, or cities like Southampton, Leicester or Newcastle, but you have to fancy the chances of London clubs.
Although not the type of name you would associate with the Italian striker, lining up for West Ham United, Crystal Palace or Watford would give Balotelli the chance to live the London lifestyle and still show he has what it takes to perform in the Premier League.
Nice was his last chance at redeeming his reputation. He succeeded, and now it’s time for his grand finale. It’s just up to English clubs to decide whether or not his free signing is a risk worth taking.