Date: 4th August 2014 at 8:30am
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Mario BalotelliThere are many questions surrounding AC Milan this summer ahead of their first Serie A fixture against Lazio on August 31, and Mario Balotelli is bound to be at the top of their agenda. Barbara Berlusconi maintains that Champions League qualification is the objective, but last month called Balotelli “replaceable.”

But what does Balotelli really bring to this AC Milan side? Simply put, he is their best striker given the Rossoneri’s barren options in that department. Compared to the rest of the league, 12 players scored more goals than him last season, but considering all the problems at the San Siro, his 14 goals in 30 appearances are in fact quite impressive. Explosive, powerful and undeniably controversial, he can adeptly spearhead any lineup.

Former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said Balotelli “lives in a place far from reality” but praised the potential he is showing. “Balotelli is fundamentally a good guy. He is only 24 and has the possibility to build on this experience,” said the 56-year-old.

But for his potential to flourish this season, the Italian striker needs the right tactics coming from the sidelines and the right players around him too, not only to assist him in attack, but also to keep him grounded when he explodes. Balotelli has always shown great promise for the national side in a 4-2-3-1 formation which allows the striker to link-up better with a deep-lying playmaker. At Milan, new signing Jeremy Menez and the returning Stephan El Shaarawy are expected to form a trident with Balotelli — although not in a 4-2-3-1 — that is sure to give the 24-year-old more assistance compared to last season. El Shaarawy has already called him “very important” to AC Milan’s plans.

AC Milan's Balotelli misses penalty v GenoaAs aforementioned, Balotelli also needs experience around him to keep him on form and out of trouble. At the San Siro there are less astute candidates but Riccardo Montolivo, Christian Abbiati and Nigel De Jong show promise. Worryingly, the average age of the squad is 26, with only 4 players over 30 years of age.

But does this current lack of maturity in the team indicate that AC Milan might be better off without Balotelli?  There are certain advantages to be found in a Rossoneri side without the Italian striker. Inzaghi was a disciplined player during his time at Milan who stuck to a strict diet and training ritual. He is keen to transfer such methods to the current AC Milan players and has already imposed a mobile phone ban and an expected time of arrival for training. But Balotelli is reportedly already showing signs of discontent with Inzaghi’s strict approach. The striker has raised questions over certain training drills and rumoured to have argued “but how the heck can we score goals if we play like that.” Cracks in harmony are beginning to appear which have the potential to disrupt the squad.

If rifts between staff and Balotelli continue as reported, Silvio Berlusconi will not hesitate in his pursuit to sell Milan’s main asset. Shortly after Italy’s elimination from the World Cup, Berlusconi said: “Other than Italy, I lost during the World Cup. I was about to sell Balotelli to an English team for several millions. But after this World Cup, who will buy him anymore?” The 24-year-old forward is valued around €30 million, which would help Milan financially as they are not competing in Europe this upcoming season and would also allow for reinvestment to be spread more evenly across the squad. But losing their best goal-scorer would be a hard pill to swallow for the fans. AC Milan scouts are expected to watch Arsenal’s Joel Campbell in the Emirates Cup, and although the Costa Rican has promise, it is fair to conclude he is not as talented or experienced as the Italian.

Mario BalotelliInzaghi was quoted at his unveiling as saying “I want a positive team who wants to play from the heart in order to beat the opposition. The Milan shirt must go back to mattering.” While a team with the objective of reaching the Champions League need positivity, heart and pride, Balotelli’s mentality fails to match any of these notions most of the time. Only last month, the striker’s agent Mino Raiola described the 24-year-old’s mood as “sad and desperate” after media criticism of his performances at the World Cup.

Do AC Milan need Mario Balotelli? The problems of his attitude and mentality could possibly be fixed if experienced faces are brought to the San Siro. Older players can also aid Balotelli tactically and help him improve on his already respectable goal-scoring record. If AC Milan are to dream about Champions League qualification next season, they cannot afford to wipe out the potential of 20 goals over the course of the campaign.

To end, AC Milan have many questions left to answer before the season kicks off. Whether they believe they need Mario or not, a quick decision is imperative.

You can follow Sam Brownsword on Twitter at: @SofaFootball