Over the past three years, Mario Balotelli has become one of the most-discussed footballers in the world. However, among the stories involving grass allergy, car crashes, dart throwing, bib problems, fireworks and visits to women's prisons, coverage of his actual footballing ability has been minimal. In his new-look, technical Italian side, Cesare Prandelli invested great faith in Balotelli from the outset. Immediately after his appointment in the wake of Italy's embarrassing performance at World Cup 2010, Prandelli handed Balotelli his debut against the Ivory Coast.
Rewind three years. Sunderland's 2009/10 season ended with an unspectacular 13th placed finish, but in Darren Bent they possessed the Premier League's third top scorer (24), with the Englishman netting half of his side's overall goal tally. Fast forward another 12 months and the striker had kept Aston Villa in the top flight with nine goals in just 16 appearances following a huge money move in January of 2011. The 29-year-old was a regular fixture in the England set up before an injury hit campaign under Alex McLeish saw him feature in just over half of the 2011/12 season.
While club football's evolution from a "team game" into a "squad game" has been widely acknowledged the past two decades, the situation at the international level remains uncertain. After all, major international tournaments are decided during the course of four weeks, rather than eight months. Whereas the speed and intensity of modern football ensures club managers frequently rotate their squad to prevent burnout in the spring, international managers often squeeze every last drop out of their regular starting XI.
The return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge has been heralded as the first move to ignite another period of domestic dominance for Chelsea. Whilst competing on multiple fronts and continuing to successfully challenge for honours, the Blues have been off the pace in the Premier League in each of the last three seasons, with last term's sixth-placed finish their lowest since 2002. Despite victory on the grandest of stages in Munich last May, Roman Abramovich wasn't happy. The team might have won club football's biggest prize, the Champions League, but they weren't playing pretty football and manager Roberto Di Matteo was soon out the door, with Rafa Benitez failing to win the fans over during his time as interim coach.
Mark van Bommel's last action as a professional footballer summarised his career perfectly -- a horrendous tackle on Twente's Dusan Tadic, which prompted the referee to reach for his red card. "That was the most obvious red card of all," the veteran conceded, before confirming his retirement. -- PSV's van Bommel sent off with red card By the end, Van Bommel's reputation was infamous -- his fouling became something of a running joke. In football, however, there's a disappointing fetishisation of dirtiness -- YouTube features not only the greatest goals and the finest saves, but also the worst tackles and the biggest fights.
When an international side embraces a new generation, there is usually a high-profile loser. That was particularly clear on Wednesday evening, as German legend Michael Ballack played in his long-awaited farewell game. As recently as May 2010, Ballack was Germany’s captain, set to lead the side through that summer's World Cup. After collecting an injury in the FA Cup final, Ballack missed the tournament -- never selected again by Jogi Low. "Many young players have stepped into the spotlight and have good prospects," Low said when announcing the end of Ballack’s international career in 2011.
The 2012/13 La Liga season saw Real Madrid's title defence overwhelmed by a devastating Barcelona outfit, with the Catalan giants losing just two matches and going agonisingly close to breaking their rivals' record points tally of 100. Atletico Madrid put up a fight for much of the season but were forced to settle for third, and it is hard to go past the stars of the top three teams as we select the best starting XI from across Spain. Formation: (a flexible) 4-3-3 GK: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid) The on-loan Chelsea youngster has been by far La Liga's outstanding 'keeper this season.
If you were searching for a single sound bite to sum up Roy Hodgson, it would be something like this -- a slightly obscure point about team structure that is perfectly reasonable from a technical coaching perspective but will look ludicrous as a standalone quote in a newspaper. And here it is, following England's disappointing 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland last night: "I think Borussia Dortmund play 4-4-2 in the same way we play 4-4-2," Hodgson said. Cue mass hysteria across social network sites at this apparently unforgivable misjudgment.
Gareth Bale: 10 Top marks have to be bestowed upon PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year Bale after a season when he confirmed he is ready to become a genuine superstar of the world game. After Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas was left to work with his hands tied due to the club's refusal to provide him with a decent selection of quality strikers, he turned to Bale to carry the goal burden, and how he delivered. World-class is a tag handed out far too readily, but Bale is worthy of the billing. Jan Vertonghen: 8.
Robin van Persie: 9.5 An extraordinary debut season at Old Trafford. Van Persie maintained the outstanding form he showed for Arsenal last year but, by transporting it to a team with loftier ambitions, he went a huge way to deciding the title race. So many of the vital victories featured a crucial contribution from the Dutchman but his significance stretched far beyond his 30-goal tally. He seemed to embrace every aspect of life at Old Trafford and his status as the talisman is undisputed now. Michael Carrick: 8.
Pablo Zabaleta: 8.5 Deservedly given a place in the PFA team of the season, even his red card in the FA Cup final should not take the sheen off a superb season. Zabaleta's wholehearted efforts brought him the vice-captaincy and, during Vincent Kompany's absence, there were times he led by example: the equaliser in December's Manchester derby and the late winner in the FA Cup tie at Stoke, for example. Energetic and excellent, the one criticism is that he shouldn't go to ground so often when tackling.
Luis Suarez: 9 A superb season, marred only by that bite of Branislav Ivanovic's arm. Suarez's tally of 30 goals, laudable as it is, does not tell the whole story. Dozens of defenders were outpaced, out-thought or simply outclassed while his reputation for profligacy was shed. The Uruguayan relished the responsibility of leading the line alone and, in the three months when Liverpool lacked another fit senior striker, an invaluable player became, if possible, still more important. Philippe Coutinho: 7.