In the early stages of his career, Mario Balotelli must have dreamt of being Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swede has won almost everything domestically; single-handedly carrying the likes of Inter Milan, AC Milan and Paris St-Germain to titles while also winning La Liga and the Eredivisie on his travels.
He boasts an imperious goalscoring record as well, having scored 50 goals in his last season for PSG.
Meanwhile, Balotelli has struggled since the two played together at Inter, with only a loan spell at Milan proving fruitful amongst disappointing stays at Manchester City and Liverpool.
The Italian moved to Nice for free on deadline day, having failed to settle at Liverpool. He had scored only two goals in two seasons for the Reds and AC Milan, where he was shipped out on loan. His career successes could not have been further from the Swede’s.
This season however, things have gone very differently.
Since the move to France, Balotelli has scored six goals in five games and appears to be thriving in his new surroundings.
Ibrahimovic on the other hand is struggling. He started well with a debut winner in the Community Shield and three goals in his first two games. But since then he has only scored one goal in his last eight.
So why are the two strikers enjoying such contrasting fortunes?
The most obvious difference is their leagues. Ibrahimovic has just moved to arguably the most competitive league in the world, while Balotelli has travelled to Ligue 1, which many see as a step below the top leagues
The game is faster and the defences are generally tougher in England meaning strikers have less time to set themselves up for scoring opportunities.
Considering their careers to this point however, you’d still expect Ibrahimovic to surpass Balotelli by some margin – so what’s happened?
A big factor is the clubs both players are at. Not in terms of stature – Manchester United are undoubtedly bigger and better-equipped than Nice – but in their trajectories.
United are floundering outside the top four and still reeling from the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson four seasons ago. Since then David Moyes and Louis van Gaal have already failed to get back among Europe’s elite.
Top-class names like Angel di Maria and Falcao have already failed and the same looks like it’s happening to Ibrahimovic at the team relies on him rather than the opposite.
This contrasts greatly with Nice who are on the up-and-up. To fans outside Ligue 1 it seems a title challenge has come out of nowhere, but Nice were one of the most exciting teams last season under current Southampton manager Claude Puel and ended the campaign in the Europa League spots.
Ibrahimovic and Balotelli both thrive in an environment where they are adored – both enjoyed their best spells at AC Milan sides built around them, while Ibra found his best scoring form in France where he is still revered as a legend.
Both also struggled at clubs not built around them or that wouldn’t bend to their will – Balotelli’s worst spells came at Liverpool and his last season at Manchester City once he fell out with managers or the fans lost faith.
Even the Swede has a blemish on his record at Barcelona. Whilst he won the league at the Catalan giants, the undeniable star of the show was Lionel Messi, making his breakthrough, whilst the Swede and manager Pep Guardiola rarely saw eye-to-eye.
It seems something similar may be happening at United. Not with Mourinho – the two have a good relationship after the Portuguese managed the Swede at Inter – but the fans turning on the striker. Ibrahimovic is hardly loved at the moment.
Balotelli meanwhile is on the south-coast of France, in a team playing to his strengths and is currently adored. With a recall to the Italian national team seemingly the aim, the French Riviera is the perfect environment for him at the moment.
Speaking of playing to strengths, not all the criticism for Ibra’s form should be laid at his door. At PSG he had a side capable of keeping the ball and creating opportunities so he could play off the last defender and get on the end of chances.
At United however, he is constantly dropping deep – much the same thing Rooney was maligned for – because he isn’t getting the service in the box. Whether a by-product of Van Gaal’s reign or not, United are still playing slow-paced, negative football that doesn’t accommodate the Swede’s talents.
For Balotelli it’s completely different. As mentioned above, Puel created a young, exciting Nice side and this has been carried on by his successor Lucien Favre. The former Borussia Monchengladbach manager has generally switched between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations geared around quick counter-attacking football and creating chances for the Italian, who is the key focal point in the side. He is confident and comfortable enough to take them as well, getting 86% of attempts on target this season.
As things stand, both United and Ibrahimovic appear to be in decline while Balotelli and Nice are on the rise.
In a bizarre change of fortune, perhaps it is now Ibrahimovic who will be looking to emulate the Italian.