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LE SPIRO: BALOTELLI ON RESCUE MISSION

Publish on 02/02/2019 at 00:00 - S. WILLIS

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Over the next four months, Mario Balotelli will be trying to salvage Marseille's season, save Rudi Garcia's job and reignite his own flagging career in one fell swoop, writes Matthew Spiro.

In the 95th minute of Marseille's game with Lille last weekend, Balotelli announced himself to the Orange Vélodrome by netting his first club goal in more than eight months. On the face of it, the Italian's perfectly-placed header mattered little. The hosts were 2-0 down at that stage and the goal by the man on loan from Nice couldn't prevent OM from crashing to their 11th dismal defeat in 17 games in all competitions.

The Big If

Yet it's a moment that may prove extremely significant. Balotelli's strike, scored just 20 minutes after coming on for his debut, has given everyone in the Mediterranean city hope. And hope is something the Marseille fans haven't felt for quite some time. If the Italy star can rediscover his best form - and it's a big 'if' - this season might not be a write off after all.

Marseille are down in ninth, but a team that possesses a ruthless goalscorer to complement the creative talents of Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin is capable of stringing together a run that would take them back up to the European places.

Hail Mary

The signing of Balotelli, who replaces the Galatasaray-bound Kostas Mitroglou, represents an almighty gamble for a club that is on the brink of crisis and ready to implode. "Mario is a player who resembles OM," noted goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. He didn't expand on that, but then he didn't need to. Everyone understood. Mario, like Marseille, is capable of blowing very hot, but he is also susceptible to going ice cold. Nice coach Patrick Vieira will could certainly testify for the latter.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and by putting all of his eggs in the Balotelli basket, Garcia is taking a huge leap of faith. Marseille banking on Balotelli in the current context feels like the equivalent of Tom Brady launching an almighty 'Hail Mary' into the Atlanta night sky on Sunday evening, and hoping that one of his New England Patriots colleagues makes a stunning catch in the end zone to win the Super Bowl. It could happen. Just like Balotelli could score a goal a game between now and May and fire OM into the Champions League. But likewise this hugely risky, blind pass could easily fly out of bounds, leave Marseille languishing in mid-table and Garcia without a job.

Mutual benefit

On the occasions Balotelli played for Nice this season, he looked largely uninterested and, if truth be told, a little on the heavy side. He had registered 33 league goals in his first two seasons at the Allianz Riviera, becoming a match-winner and firm fan favourite, but the relationship had gone stale. Marseille must hope that this new, enticing challenge relights the fire inside Balotelli.

There are many reasons to believe that Balotelli and Marseille will work. His debut goal for starters. Plus the fact he effectively has nothing to lose. The performances of Valère Germain and Mitroglou have been so meek, Garcia has often preferred to play without a centre forward. Anything Balotelli can contribute would therefore be seen as an improvement. And let's not forget that, in terms of natural ability, the 28-year-old former Manchester City, Liverpool, Inter and AC Milan star is top drawer.

Volatelli

Also, and probably most importantly, this is an individual who thrives on being loved and who relishes the pressure playing in a passionate, demanding environment. Marseille's fans are as vocal and vociferous as they come, and while they are currently jeering Garcia's under-performing players, Mario will be the one man who will be spared the wrath of the supporters.

When put like that you wonder what could possibly go wrong. Then you realise we are talking about Mario Balotelli. One of the most unpredictable, moody, mercurial, controversial footballers of the modern era, and a man who has been in dismal form all season. Plus we are also talking about Marseille, France's most volatile club, who are currently in free-fall and whose fans are at war with the management.

Stay tuned!

This particular marriage is either going to be filled with passion and happiness, or it is going to break down very quickly with disastrous consequences. Either way, it's all going to make for fascinating viewing - starting with Saturday evening's trip to face Stade de Reims.