Silvio Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, Cristian Brocchi, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gabriel Paletta.

There is a real Milan vibe about Monza, who are nestled 15 kilometres north of the Lombardy capital, as the ambitious club stand closer than ever to achieving their goal of Serie A promotion after spending their entire existence in the lower leagues.

Monza are owned by former Milan president and Italy prime minister Berlusconi, who returned to football in 2018 after selling his beloved Rossoneri a year earlier.

After purchasing the club through his Fininvest company, Berlusconi turned to his trusted right-hand man Galliani – who was born in Monza – as CEO. Their partnership helped turn the Rossoneri into a superpower, with eight Serie A titles and five Champions League/European Cup crowns among the 29 pieces of silverware between 1986 and 2017.

Monza are also coached by former Milan midfielder and boss Brocchi, while the Serie B outfit also boasts ex-Rossoneri players Balotelli, Boateng and Paletta.

After completing their rise from Serie C to the second tier of Italian football amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, Monza are well and truly in the promotion mix – fourth and six points adrift of leaders Empoli, while they are only two points behind Cittadella, who occupy the final automatic spot through 18 games.

Moving up to Serie A would mean a Milan reunion for many of Monza's staff and players, as well as Brocchi – who won the Scudetto and two Champions League titles among other honours at San Siro between 2001 and 2008 before spending a brief period in charge eight years later.

"It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

"Board, manager and some players have worn that shirt and the dream to recreate Milan here in Monza is beautiful and emotional."

"It is a tough season. There are many strong clubs, the ones relegated from A [in 2019-20] who have retained all the important players and those who last season had built up a squad for promotion and failed, so I think this year's Serie B is the hardest of recent times," he continued.

Monza – back in Serie B following a 19-year absence – are no ordinary second-tier team in Italy, with all eyes on the Bagai due to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's presence has changed the landscape for Monza, who tried to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic before the star striker opted to return to Milan in January last year. However, Monza have since lured Balotelli and Boateng to the club.

"Working for Berlusconi and Galliani's club is grand because all media attention is on you. For sure everybody thinks Monza have to win every game because these two people have gone down in football history winning so much. And this is exactly our goal," Brocchi said.

"I know very well Berlusconi and Galliani's wish is to reach Serie A and win every game. We share the same mindset because I have grown up with them since I was nine. To me it is an honour to be the manager here.

"For sure it is beautiful and important for me to manage in a club like Monza that are very ambitious. It is not easy to take a club from Serie C to Serie A but it is emotional because you have a lot of responsibilities and adrenaline is always rushing. As I said, to face strong clubs with your own aim and manage to overcome them, would make this even better." 

Brocchi, who oversaw just seven matches as Milan coach before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella, continued: "Monza's aim is to improve. We started from C, we are in B and we want Serie A. The difference between us and other clubs is that once in Serie A we won't have the goal of avoiding relegation at the last game, but to rank in the top 10.

"Mr Galliani wants us to always be a strong team going for great objectives. This is what will happen should we win this league."

Balotelli and Boateng are set to play a key role in Monza's push for promotion following their high-profile arrivals.

Boateng has made an immediate impact, with the former Milan and Barcelona midfielder – on average – scoring a goal every 243 minutes in Serie B this season, the best average among Monza players with at least 90 minutes played.

Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

"They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

"They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

The strategy of sporting director Filippo Antonelli and Brocchi to invest in promising young talent has continued to deliver results on the pitch.

Monza have allowed the fewest headed goals (one) in Serie B this season, while Brocchi's side have conceded 10 goals from inside the box – the least in the league, while they have scored five goals inside the opening 15 minutes of play – the joint most in 2020-21.

"Monza are a mix of experienced players and great young talents. The right mix to achieve our goals. Players like Balotelli and Boateng can help Mota, Carlos Augusto, Frattesi, Colpani or Bettella, all under-21 players for Italy and Portugal," the 44-year-old Brocchi said.

"You can't only field experienced players, you have to look for the right mix and this is what Antonelli and I looked for. I think experience helps youngsters and their exuberance helps the expert ones."

Mario Balotelli made a flying start to life in Serie B with a debut strike after just four minutes for Monza against Salernitana.

Former Milan and Manchester City forward Balotelli signed for Monza - owned by ex-Rossoneri chief Silvio Berlusconi - earlier this month until the end of the season.

The 30-year-old made his second-tier bow on Wednesday, lining up alongside Kevin-Prince Boateng, another former Milan man, from the start at home to the league leaders.

And Balotelli needed just three minutes and 53 seconds to get on the scoresheet as he turned in Carlos Augusto's cross with the first shot of the match and his first touch.

Balotelli has played in the top flight in Italy, England and France but only in Ligue 1, with Nice in 2016, had he previously netted on his debut in a new league.

Mario Balotelli has signed a contract with Serie B club Monza for the remainder of the season.

The 30-year-old Italian striker had been a free agent since his contract with Brescia was terminated following their relegation from Serie A last season.

Balotelli had been training with Serie D side Franciacorta to maintain his fitness and was linked with a surprise move to Championship club Barnsley.

Monza are co-owned by Silvio Berlusconi, who was previously the owner of Milan between 1986 and 2017, where Balotelli also had two spells as a player.

Balotelli began his career with Lumezzane and also played for Milan's city rivals Inter as well as Manchester City, Liverpool, Nice and Marseille.

A statement from Monza, who are ninth in Serie B, said: "Mario Balotelli comes to reinforce Monza and has signed a contract until June 30, 2021.

"Balotelli is one of only seven footballers who from January 1, 2000, has scored at least 20 goals in three of the top five European Leagues. Welcome Mario!"

Balottelli has scored 14 goals for Italy and won the last of his 36 international caps against Poland in July 2018.

He has been given the number 45 shirt at Monza and could be in line to make his debut in their Serie B clash away at Venezia on Friday.

Roberto Mancini has expressed his sadness at seeing Mario Balotelli go from being Italian football's golden boy to the odd man out.

Italy boss Mancini gave Balotelli his Serie A debut for Inter when the striker was just 17 years old, in December 2007, and a first Azzurri cap came before his 20th birthday.

Balotelli followed Mancini to Manchester City, where he showed flashes of brilliance but his stay was tainted by off-field controversies and claims about his conduct.

After a string of subsequent moves, which has seen Balotelli also play for Milan, Liverpool, Nice, Marseille and Brescia, he is without a club at the age of 30.

Speaking at a sports industry event on Thursday, Mancini said of Balotelli: "I am very sorry to see him in this condition. At the age of 30 he should be in full technical football maturity and would have been very useful to the national team.

"I love him and I hope something good always happens to him."

Mancini, appointed to the Italy post in 2018, immediately recalled Balotelli to the national team after several years without a cap, but the striker could not keep his place.

Balotelli has been linked with several clubs since leaving Brescia at the end of last season and said earlier in October that he would join a new team "in a few weeks".

Quoted by Corriere dello Sport, one of the organisers of Thursday's event, Mancini said France and Spain would be the teams to beat when the delayed Euro 2020 takes place next year.

He may already be looking to life beyond his Italy role, saying of the experience of an international boss: "I find it hard to feel like a coach, I don't like this life very much. My favourite thing is to coach every day."

Mancini, 55, also expressed concern about the state of football during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"COVID is destroying us," he said. "If it were up to me, I would already send more crowds to the stadiums, perhaps well distributed among the various sections."

Mario Balotelli looks to have no hope of a move to Besiktas after club president Ahmet Nur Cebi said the Italian is not wanted by coach Sergen Yalcin.

The Turkish Super Lig giants were reported to have offered Balotelli a lucrative contract, with the striker likely to be on the move again after a turbulent first season with Brescia.

Brescia president Massimo Cellino revealed in May he expected Balotelli to leave his hometown club at the end of the season as the 30-year-old "no longer has his head with us".

Cellino's comments came following reports the former Italy frontman failed to attend training, claims which were denied by Balotellli before Brescia suffered relegation from Serie A.

Cebi suggested Balotelli's name cropped up when transfer targets were discussed, but Yalcin does not want to take the former Manchester City man to Istanbul.

Cebi, quoted widely by Turkish media, said: "Sergen Yalcin does not consider Mario Balotelli as one of his options for the striker position. He told me that.

"Executives usually have initial talks with players and listen to them. This doesn't mean that a move is bound to happen.

"We will make the signings Sergen Yalcin has asked of us but, I want to put it frankly, we will not compromise our financial situation."

As well as Cellino's criticism of Balotelli, the Italy international was reported to have clashed with former head coach Fabio Grosso at Brescia's training ground in November.

He was given permission to leave the club in January, only to stay put before the coronavirus pandemic caused the suspension of the season in March.

Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini insisted Everton forward Moise Kean was "completely different" to Mario Balotelli.

Kean left the Serie A champions for Everton last year, with the Premier League side paying £25million (€27.5m) for the Italy forward.

The 20-year-old had scored just once in 26 appearances for Everton before this season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, and was dropped in November reportedly for a disciplinary breach.

Kean was also condemned by Everton in April after an apparent breach of lockdown rules.

Having previously criticised Brescia forward Balotelli, Chiellini said Kean was nothing like the former Inter and Manchester City man.

"Balotelli only has the shot. There are those who now compare him with Moise Kean, a boy who appears rebellious and unmanageable, but is completely different from Mario," Chiellini wrote in Io, Giorgio.

"Of course, in Juventus youth he was punished many times, but when he played in the first team he always showed himself very respectful towards the group.

"Sometimes he does not hear the alarm and arrives late, but they are behaviours that can be changed without difficulty."

Kean came through the youth system at Juventus, where he scored eight goals in 21 games before his departure.

Mario Balotelli has responded to reports he failed to attend training on Sunday, insisting he is not "invisible to the cameras" that were present at the session.

Balotelli has endured a difficult season with hometown club Brescia, the 29-year-old managing just five goals in 19 Serie A appearances this term. 

Brescia president Massimo Cellino said on Thursday that he expects Balotelli to leave, conceding it was a mistake to sign the former Manchester City forward, who reportedly skipped training on Tuesday. 

Similar reports emerged in the Italian media on Sunday. However, using his official Instagram account, Balotelli denied the speculation. 

"How can you write that I am not training on the pitch? There are journalists at the centre at all my sessions, obviously with their TV cameras!" Balotelli said on his Instagram story. 

"I attend two training sessions a day, almost every day! How can you deny the evidence? I didn't think I was a phantom, invisible to the cameras." 

As well as Celino's criticism of Balotelli, the Italy international also had a training-ground bust-up with former head coach Fabio Grosso in November. 

He was given permission to leave the club in January, only to stay put before the coronavirus pandemic caused the suspension of the season in March. 

Brescia president Massimo Cellino expects Mario Balotelli to leave the club at the end of the season as the striker "no longer has his head with us".

Balotelli signed a three-year deal with hometown side Brescia last year but his time with the Serie A strugglers has been plagued by numerous off-field issues.

The Italy international was involved in a training-ground spat with former head coach Fabio Grosso in November and was told he could leave the club in January after falling out with Cellino.

He remained at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti but failed to score in six matches before the coronavirus-enforced shutdown and is reported to have skipped training on Tuesday.

And Cellino is anticipating a parting of the ways between Balotelli and Brescia, who are are nine points from safety with 12 games to play.

"I try to avoid legal action and the Balotelli case was blown out of proportion because there's no football and little else to talk about," he told Telelombardia

"He no longer has his head with us and I am taking his departure for granted. It's not necessarily different to what he's always done in his career – he's just a bit anarchic.

"His contract is automatically annulled in case of relegation into Serie B, so with all probability he'll be a free agent next season, considering our status."

Balotelli has five goals in 19 appearances for Brescia this season and Cellino acknowledges the high-profile move has not gone to plan.

"[Former boss] Eugenio Corini cared for him, he allowed some lateness to slide, a few training sessions at a low tempo. We are disappointed, perhaps he will be too," he added.

"We didn't sign Balotelli just as a media coup, we really did believe he could've given us an important contribution on the pitch. 

"I thought, because I like him, that he could create something new for himself in Brescia. We are disappointed in him."

A little over two minutes before the moment that will forever define his career, Manchester City hero Sergio Aguero showed sharpness in the Queens Park Rangers goalmouth that would not have been out of place at Old Trafford.

Old Trafford cricket ground that is, just down the road from City's bitter rivals and their home of the same name.

As Edin Dzeko's equaliser from David Silva's right-wing corner bounced back off the netting, Aguero pounced, snaffling it like a quicksilver short-leg fielder and darting back to the centre circle for City's final tilt at the improbable.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the striker's movement after Joey Barton brazenly tried to dead leg him – one of many surreal and key incidents that fed into a frenzied and famous race against the clock on May 13, 2012.

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The whole story is now as well worn as any in football history.

On the cusp of a first top-flight title for 44 years, Robert Mancini's Manchester City faced relegation-threatened QPR on the final day of the season. In their previous 18 Premier League home matches that season, they had won 17 and drawn the other – the most recent of those a 1-0 win over United that tipped a titanic Mancunian tussle back towards the blue side of town.

City simply needed to match United's result at Sunderland and led 1-0 at the interval thanks to Pablo Zabaleta, only for second-half goals from Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie to turn the contest on its head.

It remained 2-1 heading into stoppage time despite QPR operating with 10 men. City youth product Barton was dismissed for tussling with Carlos Tevez and responded to Mike Dean's red card by thumping his knee into Aguero's thigh before aiming a headbutt at Vincent Kompany. Fireworks enthusiast Mario Balotelli poured some petrol on this particular bonfire by confronting the combustible Scouser as he stomped towards the tunnel.

Aside from that significant blemish, QPR's discipline was otherwise impeccable. Despite ceding 81.3 possession overall and 84.1 per cent during the second half, they only made seven fouls. Stoppages were infrequent as City thrashed and flailed with increasing desperation and diminishing artistry around the opposition penalty area.

Without Barton's meltdown, there is little chance five minutes of stoppage time - or the three minutes and 20 seconds they ultimately required - would have been signalled. It was time City desperately needed and time they could put to good use with their top scorer's fast-twitch fibres bristling.

                                                                *********************

Barton was not the only QPR man with City connections. His team-mates Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha had also graduated through Jim Cassell's Platt Lane youth system, while Rangers boss Mark Hughes was Mancini's immediate predecessor, having been axed shortly before Christmas in 2009.

Hughes, of course, also played for United with distinction across two spells, and those loyalties struck a chord as news came through Bolton Wanderers had failed to beat Stoke City, meaning the Londoners were safe irrespective of the outcome at the Etihad Stadium.

"[City] got back on level terms and I always remember, at that point, I knew we were safe because the other result came in," he told the Coaches Voice earlier this year.

"I'm thinking, 'I wouldn't mind United winning, if I'm honest'. It's 2-2 and Jay Bothroyd looked over, asking what we wanted them to do [from the restart]. The players understood the [Bolton] game was over and we'd stayed up. We just said kick it as far as you can, right in the corner and the game's over."

Hughes' recollections from that point credit City with a poise they absolutely lacked. Rarely can a team have scored twice in this space of two minutes and – save for a crucial few seconds – played so shambolically.

Bothroyd's hoof found touch and scampering Joe Hart ran out of his goal to take the throw-in. The England goalkeeper almost missed the pitch.

Gael Clichy carried the ball down the flank, only for his attempted cross to turn into a block tackle with Mackie. Samir Nasri's aimless, floated effort that followed did little more than give Clint Hill a ninth successful clearance of the afternoon.

Nasri then excelled himself by shepherding the ball out for a QPR throw-in. Just 40 seconds before that explosion of ecstasy there was fury and anguish in the stands. Aguero watched it all from roughly the QPR penalty spot. Apparently he'd seen quite enough.

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Now 31 and City's all-time top scorer, Aguero honed his lethal skills playing against bigger boys in Buenos Aires on the neighbourhood potrero – the hard gravel and mud neighbourhood pitches that football purists in Argentina bemoan are a diminishing presence.

"When you play you have to think fast. Who to take on, who not," Aguero said when recalling those days in a 2018 documentary for City's in-house television channel. "You know who is going to play dirty, who isn't.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

Reflecting further in the 2019 book 'Pep's City' by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, he further explained the proving ground that readied him for Barton and others.

"Getting kicked black and blue was all part of the game," he said. "You held on to the ball any way you could.

"Running with the ball was a whole different concept for us. I'd be up against big, tough boys and I was always the smallest. But I learned how to survive."

Aguero remembered those matches were played for the prize of a peso, which would garner one of his favourite sweet treats, an alfajor or dulce de leche.

As United's players took in full-time and three points at the Stadium of Light, and Nigel de Jong brought the ball forward in Manchester to the soundtrack of QPR celebrations – their fans aware of Bolton's fate – the stakes were somewhat higher.

Vacating his spot in a penalty area already crowded by substitutes Dzeko and Balotelli, along with a marauding Kompany, Aguero took possession from De Jong 30 yards from goal.

He faced up to a compact QPR back four, with the visitors' four midfielders all in his immediate vicinity.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

A shuffling touch to his left engineered space outside Shaun Derry, but Aguero needed help. Ideally from someone reliable, given the complete lack of any margin for error.

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Balotelli was on the pitch in a Manchester City shirt for the first time in over a month.

Mancini had not trusted his wayward protege since a brainless red card in a 1-0 Easter Sunday defeat at Arsenal left City eight points behind United with six games to play. Tevez, who had spent the bulk of the campaign AWOL playing golf in Argentina, represented a far more dependable option.

But with nowhere left to turn, he dared and prayed for Mario to be super. However briefly.

Introduced in the 76th minute, Balotelli gave the impression he had not just been banished from Premier League arenas, but football pitches altogether since his previous game.

The Italy striker managed to run through seven attempts – two on target, five blocked – during a frenzied cameo. It was probably as well Aguero found him with his back to goal, inside the D and grappling with Anton Ferdinand.

"I tried to control the ball and I had a contact from the defender and the ball went a little bit far from my foot," Balotelli told City TV five years on. "I thought in that half second there is maybe going to be a little bit of space for Sergio."

If Balotelli had stayed upright, the likelihood is QPR would have seen through their final piece of dogged tireless defending. In being forced on to his backside for the only assist of his Premier League career, he created opportunity and chaos.

Facing his own goal, Derry had to hurdle a prone Balotelli, while Wright-Phillips' route back to defend was also compromised. With his centre-back partner grounded, Hill held his position square on, while Kompany's haring towards the six-yard box dragged left-back Taye Taiwo with him.

A pocket of space opened up. A spot of turf Balotelli was able to locate from his sedentary position. As limbs flailed around him and a tight defence scattered, Aguero was thinking fast. The law of the porteno.

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Argentina's aforementioned tradition of tough, uncompromising neighbourhood football goes hand in hand with the mystique and mythology that cloaks the country's national sport.

A playing style grounded in skill and improvisation - La Nuestra, which translates as "our way" – was locked into the collective consciousness during the first half of the 20th century. The preeminent football magazine El Grafico, served to deepen this romantic attachment, with depictions of the pibe – literally a kid or urchin, whose rough and ready footballing techinique combined street smarts and skill and was something of an archetype. Typically they would dribble in the gambeta style, a description that implies close control, cunning and deceit of opponents.

The idea that the likes of Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega, Lionel Messi and all those other squat, explosive and technically brilliant attackers from Argentina immersed themselves in the yellowed pages of El Grafico archive is far-fetched, but the style is unquestionably embedded. Think of the amount of barrelling, dribbling goals such players have produced – close control, small pauses and faints as thighs piston their way through defences.

As the walls were closing in on City's title bid, Aguero showed himself to be a proud product of this lineage. When Balotelli began his battle against gravity, he deftly checked his run behind and around Wright-Phillips to open up a path to the penalty area.

Letting the pass roll, he shaped to shoot, drawing a scampering Taiwo, who left his Kompany decoy a little too late to remain in control. Aguero did not actually touch Balotelli's return pass until his body position persuaded a rash slide tackle that he nudged beyond with the outside of his right boot.

With Taiwo suitably gambeta'd, there came one last stroke of fortune.

                                                                *********************

"I touched it again and saw I was close to the goal, so I said 'I'll shoot'. The worst thing was that I wanted to shoot hard across goal and it went to the near post, I don't know what happened" Aguero told TyC Sports last month – the latter sentiment at least aligning him with every soul inside the Etihad Stadium that day.

"After watching it back, I realised that if I had shot across goal a defender could have blocked it. I celebrated the goal and told everybody, 'I hit it so well!'."

Goal 23 of a personal Premier League tally that now reads 180, one of 127 with Aguero's ferocious right boot, understandably left an indelible impression on the suddenly defeated Hughes.

"Of all the games I've been involved in, that noise at that moment when that goal went in is different to anything I've ever heard before or since.

"It was just unbelievable sound – different sound to a football crowd. It was a mixture of screaming and noise. It was just an unbelievable moment."

That racket has since been replayed thousands of times across the world. A goal on a tightrope that altered the course of English football, which began with gifting the opposition a 92nd-minute throw-in and ended thanks to a miscue after the main protagonist's strike partner fell over.

It is the Premier League's most famous goal - a moment as synonymous with Manchester as cotton mills and the Hacienda, and yet Argentinian to its very bones.

Marco Tardelli has expressed his disappointment over Giorgio Chiellini's "harsh" comments about Mario Balotelli and Felipe Melo.

Chiellini, who is releasing a new book, accused Mario Balotelli of being "a negative person" who "deserved a slap" for his conduct when part of Italy's squad at the 2013 Confederations Cup.

The Juventus defender was even more brutal when it came to his ex-club team-mate Felipe Melo, calling him "the worst of the worst" and revealing he told the team's management the midfielder was "a rotten apple".

Both players promptly hit back at Chiellini, who also expressed his hatred for rivals Inter. Balotelli insisted he had never disrespected the Italy shirt and slammed the Juve man for not telling him to his face, while Melo branded the veteran "unprofessional".

Tardelli spent 10 seasons with Juve and then two with Inter to conclude his Serie A career, while he won the World Cup with Italy in 1982.

He reacted to Chiellini's words on Twitter, posting: "I am truly disappointed by the statements by Giorgio Chiellini, captain of the national team, Juventus and a leading man on the AIC [Italian Footballers' Association] board.

"Harsh words towards team-mates - colleagues who should consider him a point of reference.

"The hatred declared towards another club creates hatred. Respect for the opponent even in the toughest fight, that is what I learned from captains like Dino Zoff and Gaetano Scirea."

Mario Balotelli and Felipe Melo fired back at stinging criticism from Juventus and Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Chiellini was scathing of his former team-mates – the Juve captain accusing Balotelli of being "a negative person", while adding the Italian forward deserved a slap during the 2013 Confederations Cup.

Brescia star Balotelli hit back at the comments made in Chiellini's new autobiography via social media on Saturday.

"At least I have the sincerity and courage to say things to your face," Balotelli wrote on Instagram, tagging Chiellini.

"Since 2013 you've had a lot of chances to act like a real man, but you haven't. Who knows what you'll say one day about your current team-mates.

"A strange captain... if this is what being a champion is then I'd prefer not to be one. I've never disrespected the Azzurri shirt."

Chiellini, 35, was more brutal when it came to assessing former Juve colleague Melo – the Brazilian midfielder who played for the Bianconeri from 2009 to 2011 before eventually joining Serie A rivals Inter.

"Even worse was Felipe Melo: the worst of the worst. There was always a fight with him. I also told the managers: he's a rotten apple," Chiellini wrote.

Melo – who now plays for Palmeiras – told Gazzetta dello Sport: "It would be interesting to know what incident he's referring to. I don't have a problem responding to him.

"I never disrespected anyone in Turin, but he says that Balotelli deserved a slap and that I was the worst of the worst and that there was always a threat of a fight because of me.

"He always pissed himself. I'm sorry, but it's easy to speak badly of others in a book.

"Perhaps he's still angry because when I went to Galatasaray we knocked them out of the Champions League and we beat Italy with Brazil.

"He's won nothing at international level and saying things like this shows him to be unprofessional.

"It shows a lack of respect and I won't say any more. Some things have to stay in the dressing room."

Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini has launched a blistering takedown of former Italy team-mate Mario Balotelli, accusing him of being "a negative person".

The pair were Azzurri team-mates for several years, when Balotelli was a maverick young striker who looked set to achieve great things.

In a new autobiography, Chiellini snaps at his former colleague, writing: "Balotelli is a negative person, without respect for the squad.

"At the Confederations Cup, in 2013, he didn't give us a hand in anything, stuff that deserves a slap."

During the tournament in question, Balotelli scored twice, including a penalty, in the group stage, before a thigh injury ruled him out of the semi-final against Spain, who beat Italy on penalties.

Balotelli was a Milan player at the time and has since had spells with Liverpool, Nice and Marseille, with Brescia the latest stop-off in a varied career.

Chiellini, 35, was more brutal when it came to assessing former Juve colleague Felipe Melo, the Brazilian midfielder who played for the Bianconeri from 2009 to 2011.

"Even worse was Felipe Melo: the worst of the worst. There was always a fight with him. I also told the managers: he's a rotten apple," Chiellini wrote.

He backed up his comments in an interview with Saturday's La Repubblica newspaper, saying: "I confirm it, but I have no grudge and nor am I interested in having one. If I have to share something with them, I will.

"I'm not everyone's best friend, but they are the only two who have gone beyond an acceptable limit.

"For me, the problem is not if you play well, badly or if you sometimes have an evening out, but if you lack respect and have nothing inside. Once, it's fine, if it's recurring, it's not."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Balotelli, Yaya Toure, Sebastian Giovinco and Alex Teixeira are among the potential signings being targeted by Vasco da Gama presidential candidate Luiz Roberto Leven Siano.

High-profile additions to the playing staff are among a number of ambitious proposals Leven, who hopes to gain control of the club at elections planned for November, has put forward to turn around the fortunes of a club that has struggled to pay wages this year.

As part of the 'Somamos' project he also hopes to bring in US$400million in six years, redevelop the Sao Januario and raise the capacity to 55,000, increase the membership base to record-breaking levels and purchase clubs in Europe and China to expand the Vasco brand.

Leven claims to have been working with Italian businessman and sporting director Fabio Cordella as well as agent Mino Raiola, whose clients include Ibrahimovic and Balotelli.

"We are negotiating, trying to make the Vasco of our dreams," Leven said in an interview with FOXSports.com.br.

"Balotelli and Ibrahimovic have the same agent. Ibrahimovic would be a more daring project.

"But you don't have to think about which great player will be hired, but that we will bring in great players. If it's not one, it will be another."

Former Manchester City and Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure was linked with a switch to Botafogo that did not come to fruition, but Leven suggested Vasco stand a chance of securing a deal for the former Ivory Coast international.

"In football there are no coincidences. If [Toure] didn't go to Botafogo, it was because someone stopped him. Maybe he's close to me," he said.

A move to return Jiangsu Suning forward Teixeira to Vasco reportedly hit a stumbling block, while Al Hilal's Giovinco is understood to be another target for the club.

Leven has also promised to bring Brazil international Souza back to the club.

"If we have players at the level of Balotelli, Yaya Toure, Giovinco, Alex Teixeira and Souza, we are a competitive team," added Leven.

Italy coach Roberto Mancini insists the door remains open for Mario Balotelli to make a return to the national team.

Balotelli has not played for his country since a 1-1 draw with Poland in September 2018, when he featured for just over an hour of the Nations League fixture.

The forward scored five goals in 19 appearances for bottom club Brescia before the Serie A season was halted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, having returned to his homeland after three years in France.

Still, Mancini knows all about the player's qualities from their time working together previously, having coached him at Inter and Manchester City prior to taking charge of the Azzurri.

"If he only thinks about football and does what he has to do, the doors are open, for him as for many other players who may not have been called up," Mancini said in an interview with Sport Mediaset.

"Mario is like everyone else - he has important qualities, but it depends only on him."

Balotelli is not the only player who could benefit from Euro 2020 being pushed back due to the COVID-19 outbreak across Europe.

Roma's Nicolo Zaniolo was set to miss the tournament this year due to injury, yet now has time to recover and be part of Italy's plans in 2021.

Mancini said of the versatile 20-year-old: "He will grow like the other younger boys. Another year will be important for him.

"The first time I saw him he played as a midfielder and I think that's his position. But he has the possibility to play wide on the right, as he is playing in Rome at times. 

"If a player with important qualities can fill multiple roles without any problems, this is an advantage for him and for us."

Italy qualified in impressive fashion, running away with Group J with a 100 per cent record, giving Mancini confidence they can do well when the finals eventually take place.

"Bringing the championship back to Italy after so many years, since the last one was won in 1968, would be a magnificent thing we want to do. We have the qualities to do it," he added.

Manchester City's 6-1 thumping of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in October 2011 sent shockwaves throughout the football world.

Roberto Mancini's team's evisceration of their illustrious rivals at Old Trafford served booming notice of Premier League title ambitions that would be dramatically realised the following May.

Since that day, City have claimed four top-flight crowns to the one that marked Ferguson's 2012-13 United swansong.

As such, talk of a powershift in Manchester is often pinned on a game simple known as "the 6-1" in City circles.

However, there is an argument that a derby win 200 miles south of Manchester at Wembley Stadium six months earlier was more significant in terms of laying the foundations of what was to come.

Yaya Toure scored the only goal in that FA Cup semi-final on April 16, 2011, a day when Mancini's hastily yet carefully assembled City began to scent everything was possible.

FORZA MANCINI

Unlike the current incumbent of the Etihad Stadium hotseat, current Italy boss Mancini will not feature in many conversations debating the finest coaches of this generation.

An impressive CV, featuring Serie A and Premier League success, is checked in the eyes of some observers due to the respective factors of his Inter benefiting from Juventus' punishment in the Calciopoli scandal and a bulging Abu Dhabi war chest at City.

Then there are the frequent short-tempered altercations with players that result in few former charges burnishing the Mancini legend.

However, there can be little doubt that the hard-headed and tactically sharp Sampdoria great was exactly the right man at the right time for Manchester City.

As evidenced by a touchline spat the following season, Mancini relished the challenge of head-to-head combat with Ferguson – an attitude that quickly seeped through a club that had generally dreaded derby day for two decades.

A profile by The Athletic recently detailed how City's team bus went the wrong way to Wembley en route to the United match and Mancini, very much the superstitious type, made the driver repeat the convoluted route ahead of the final against Stoke City.

They were the only wrong turns he took when navigating the pursuit of his club's first silverware for 35 years, with two of his major signings coming to the party on cue.

TOURE THE MATCH-WINNER

Despite some scattergun buys, particularly after Sheikh Mansour's takeover went through in September 2008, Mark Hughes left Mancini a useful inheritance. Joe Hart, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Pablo Zabaleta and captain Vincent Kompany would all go on to be pivotal figures in the 2011-12 title win.

City's 2010 close-season haul of recruits was expensive but astutely put together, as David Silva, James Milner, Aleksandar Kolarov, Jerome Boateng and Mario Balotelli all arrived alongside Toure.

That £24million signing from Barcelona was derided in some quarters – Toure was an average player who neither created nor scored goals, in Paul Merson's judgement.

As hilariously as those words read now when considering one of the Premier League's great midfield players, it was easy to view the big Ivorian as possibly surplus to requirements. A holding player at Barcelona, Mancini already had Barry, Nigel de Jong and an ageing Patrick Vieira for such duties.

Of course, Toure would prove to be so much more than that, unleashed ahead of the De Jong-Barry midfield base to wreak havoc. He seized upon Michael Carrick's early second-half mistake at Wembley, smoothly accelerated beyond Nemanja Vidic and slotted past Edwin van der Sar to spark bedlam in the City end behind the goal.

Toure also scored to sink Stoke in the final and he frequently proved himself as the man for the big moments thereafter. He hit a brace at Newcastle United to bring the title within touching distance in 2012 and scored remarkable solo goals against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa to do likewise two years later.

The 2013-14 season also saw Toure spark a 3-1 comeback win over Sunderland in the EFL Cup final with an outrageous long-range finish. In 2016, he netted the decisive penalty to see off Liverpool in the same showpiece.

There were three more Manchester derby goals on the back of his Wembley heroics – two of those in resounding victories. City had found their ultimate clutch player.

THROW BALOTELLI IN JAIL

Toure's winner almost instantly injected a swagger into Manchester City that was impossible to equate with the squad that seemed to stagger apologetically into the national stadium.

A 3-0 thrashing at Liverpool on the preceding Monday and a hamstring injury to attacking talisman Carlos Tevez meant furrowed brows long before the satnav went rogue en route to Wembley.

United remarkably scored three injury-time winners in four derbies the previous season – including one in the EFL Cup semi-final – and Wayne Rooney's overhead kick to settle the February encounter at Old Trafford lay fresh in the memory.

Dimitar Berbatov passed up two glorious chances in quick succession, sliding the ball over from three yards after Joe Hart saved superbly. It felt like a matter of time until a United side still chasing a treble at that stage would make their superiority count.

But then two of Mancini's headline acquisitions set about shifting the contest in City's favour. David Silva shuffled and cajoled his attack up the pitch, deftly tying United up, silken thread by silken thread.

Already a European champion and World Cup winner with Spain at this stage of his career, Silva gracing the big occasion with aplomb was no more surprising than at any other point over the past decade. The same could not be said for the inimitable Balotelli.

The madcap charm of the Italian's early days in Manchester had lost much of its shine over the previous month. In a 2-0 Europa League defeat at Dynamo Kiev, Balotelli was substituted after suffering an allergic reaction to the grass.

In the return leg, City claimed a 1-0 win – their exit relatively valiant as it came with 10 men after Balotelli plunged his studs into Goran Popov's chest in the 35th minute. He was also said to have thrown darts at youth-team players to cap his own personal take on March madness.

A stricken Tevez clearing the way for Balotelli to start against United looked a recipe for further nonsense, but the enigmatic forward harnessed and channelled his lavish gifts.

Only Silva (four) created more than the two chances the ex-Inter youngster crafted for City, and Balotelli's four shots saw him threaten the United goal more frequently than any of his team-mates, all the while intelligently occupying the formidable centre-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Vidic.

Balotelli dropping deep and fashioning space for a rasping 35-yard strike that Van der Sar had to turn over was the moment in the game City came up for air and belief seemed to flow thereafter.

Their centre-forward played like a grown-up right up until the final whistle, when he made a beeline for Ferdinand and sparked a brawl that Mancini pulled his perplexing protege away from.

"Every time something happens it seems to be Mario's fault," the City boss remarked. "If he did celebrate in front of the Manchester United supporters, I don't know, we can put him in jail if you like."

TEARING DOWN THE BANNER

Even if a permanent change in Balotelli's output would prove beyond Mancini, he arguably propelled a shift in his club's collective mindset in that FA Cup semi-final.

"If we win the FA Cup, then next season I think we can play for the title because we improve our mentality and we can improve our team," Mancini said afterwards. City did both those things.

United's frustrations as the afternoon progressed, demonstrated by Paul Scholes' red-card lunge on Zabaleta, suggested an awareness of what their lax showing was about to unleash.

City have not entered a derby as clear underdogs since. Once a club embarrassed by a trophy drought and Old Trafford's mocking ticker banner, six of the past seven major trophies contested in English football have ended up at the Etihad Stadium.

The vast sums spent on Sheikh Mansour's Eastlands project can make that return feel inevitable, but that was not the sense at Wembley in April 2011 as Mancini's players giddily joined their supporters in the backs-turned Poznan celebration at full-time, lapping up that first dizzying encounter with possibilities.

The 6-1 might be the result City fans still crow about at every derby, while Sergio Aguero's last-ditch escapology against Queens Park Rangers claimed a slice of football history never to be forgotten.

But without Toure's Wembley winner on a day neither as bombastic or cinematic as those high-water marks, the path to glory would have at best been delayed and very different indeed.

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