Could this be the start of Balotelli's big year?

Posted by Sumeet Paul

Claudio Villa/Getty ImagesMario Balotelli is enjoying becoming the new face of AC Milan.

His development and new-found maturity have been well-documented since his return to Italy in January, but Milan striker Mario Balotelli now could be entering what could be the most productive spell of his career thus far. With Italy securing their place in Brazil next summer, what can Balotelli achieve this season?

From being mocked in the tabloids and having his commitment questioned, the 23-year-old is now delivering for both club and country on a consistent basis, having been installed as a focal point by both Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri and Italy manager Cesare Prandelli.

Super Mario has now scored 10 goals in his last 16 international appearances, which would suggest he is ready for the world stage next summer, after already demonstrating last summer to the rest of Europe how important he is to the Azzurri’s hopes of success.

Meanwhile, that impressive scoring ratio has been matched at club level for the Rossoneri, where he has scored almost every other game as Allegri feels progressively more comfortable handing him more responsibility.

While the media may still search for an excuse to single him out and opposing defenders look for a reaction, Balotelli now does the majority of his talking on the pitch in a positive manner. In addition, aside from the odd incident along the way, he appears to have also reined in his temper.

Regardless, his ability has never been in question, with former players, experts and supporters alike reiterating Balotelli can be as good as he wants to be.

Former Brazil international Ronaldo was the latest iconic figure to talk about him this week, saying the people of Brazil already love him after his contribution at the Confederations Cup, but it is up to him to now "take the next step up in quality."

So what is that next step up in quality? While his most ardent of supporters will argue Balotelli can already be considered in the top-five players in the world debate, there are others who still have reservations.

Granted, that will mean little to Balotelli, whose self-confidence is perhaps mistaken for arrogance. But through his performances he is rapidly changing opinion. By merely making him feel important and placing him at the centre of a project, Allegri is getting the best out of him and he will be itching to play in the Champions League again this season.

With his best years ahead of him, Balotelli has room for improvement before his talent reaches its ceiling. The World Cup next summer could potentially be Prandelli's last tournament in charge, which in turn could leave Balotelli feeling as if he owes the tactician something for his faith in him.

There is also the potential of a reunion with Prandelli at the club level should Allegri take the Italy job if it is available next summer. He has been identified as a candidate, with Prandelli perhaps a front-runner to replace him at Milan.

Nevertheless, rumours and speculation aside that infectious smile is becoming an almost constant sight as Balotelli is undoubtedly enjoying his football. While that is great for us to see from the stands and on television, it can only mean great things for the future of Milan and the Azzurri , too.

Where does Balotelli rank among the top players in the world right now? Can he lead club and/or country to glory this year or is the best yet to come?

For all the latest Milan and Serie A news, you can follow me on Twitter @italiafooty


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