An unconvincing start in Serie A and a lengthy injury list; AC Milan's season has begun in a similar fashion to last. However, there is one major difference the Rossoneri can draw on ahead of their Group H opener against Celtic FC – his name is Mario Balotelli.
The 23-year old striker joined Milan from Manchester City FC in January and was ineligible for last term's knockout phase, with Milan subsequently eliminated by FC Barcelona in the round of 16. However, his 12 goals in 13 league appearances helped Milan to finish third and once more qualify for Europe's premier club competition. He already has two more Serie A strikes to his name in 2013/14, including an added-time penalty against Torino FC on Saturday that prevented a second league defeat in their opening three games.
All the while, Milan have lost almost an entire team to injuries: Gabriel in goal; Ignazio Abate, Matías Silvestre, Daniele Bonera and Mattia De Sciglio in defence; Andrea Poli, Riccardo Montolivo and Riccardo Saponara in midfield; Kaká, Giampaolo Pazzini and Stephan El Shaarawy up front.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri is trying to look on the bright side. "I only have 13 players available, so I won't have many problems in selecting a lineup – I can only have two queries," he said. Indeed the 46-year-old cuts a figure almost as cool as Balotelli does from the penalty spot.
The Italy forward converted his spot kick in the 97th minute against Torino, showing nerves of steel to make it 21 out of 21 in his professional career. The stage of the game, the importance of the points at stake and the strength of the goalkeeper make no difference to the former Manchester City FC man.
"It's just a mind game between me and the goalkeeper," he once said in an interview. "I know how to control my mind. When the keeper moves before me, it means that he has lost this mind game." Milan will need to show plenty of resolve themselves to navigate this rocky period, but last season showed that a game-changer like Balotelli can make all the difference.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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