Balotelli, Bendtner and why talent alone is not enough to succeed
On the face of it, Mario Balotelli and Nicklas Bendtner have had contrasting weeks.
Before the dust had settled on his two-goal debut for Nice, Balotelli had cast his sights toward the Ballon d'Or; even Bendtner would have known better than to announce such a target after a glaring late miss for Nottingham Forest against Rotherham.
Beyond the difference in tone, though, there was one factor that united both men: Neither Balotelli nor Bendtner have envisaged having to reboot his career at, respectively, 26 and 28 years of age and the impression has set in that, once and for all, two sublime talents have proved unable to prolong top-level careers on ability alone.
Although Bendtner may feel at home playing for former European champions he probably did not have an English second-tier side in mind. Meanwhile, if Balotelli's position at Europa League contenders Nice appears more palatable, it is worth remembering that, four years ago, he was adorning a patchy spell at Manchester City with the pass that won the Premier League.
Since then, Balotelli has moved between big clubs, each believing they could be the one to smooth his frayed edges, before Liverpool finally cut their losses this summer. Bendtner, meanwhile, had been reduced to training with his first club -- FC Copenhagen -- before the chance to join Forest materialized.
His free agent status was a comedown for someone who, after a lengthy injury absence following a serious car accident in 2010, stressed football's fundamental importance to his existence.
"I think a lot of people who know me very closely would say that Nicklas without football does not have a full life," Bendtner said. "Let me just put it this way -- it's very, very important that I'm back. It means such a great deal to me."
The problem is that he has not shown that enough and it was difficult to get too excited when, upon his unveiling at the City Ground, he admitted to falling short on previous occasions in his career: "I've made many mistakes in my life. It's in the past. I'm just looking to the future," said the man who scored 40 goals for Arsenal before his 23rd birthday.
Both Bendtner and Balotelli might reflect that -- quite apart from the fitness and injury issues both have experienced at different times -- it is simply less easy to exist as a footballer, who exhibits anything less than total devotion to his craft nowadays. In an age where performance in training is measured as meticulously as what happens in a competitive game, you cannot afford to drop off; if you do, it is hard to shake the consequences.
"To be a successful footballer in this day and age, it's not enough just to have talent," Bradley Busch, a leading sports psychologist from London-based performance consultancy Inner Drive, tells ESPN FC. "Talent combines with mindset and, if you have lots of talent but a very fragile or poor mindset, you're unlikely to fill your potential."
Busch is not referring specifically to either Balotelli or Bendtner but they certainly come to mind when he outlines a theory called "growth mindset."
"It says you can view your talent in one of two ways," Busch says. "If you view it as set in stone, decided above, largely formed by genes and DNA, you're unlikely to learn very much over the course of your career, because what's the point if everything is pre-ordained?
"Those who see their talent as something that can be developed and improved tend to be much more responsive and open to feedback, so usually my money's on the players who learn quickest and best to make the most improvement. I think some players are so concerned about looking good, whereas others are more focused on becoming good."
Anyone who remembers Balotelli's statue -- a life-sized image of himself in taut, defiant, celebratory pose "imagined as an athlete from ancient times," which he had commissioned in 2013 -- might form a connection here with what Busch says. It takes some brio for a then-22-year-old to plump for immortality in such a manner but the impression it conveyed was clear: This is the finished article.
Balotelli suggested this week that, while at Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp chipped away at that self-belief -- "As people they didn't make a good impression on me" -- but, in fairness, Rodgers was openly sceptical about the wisdom of taking on the Italian and his doubts proved prophetic. Moreover, Balotelli's languid style hardly fits the way Klopp likes to play. The player's absolution of himself from blame, though, is startling.
"The game is different now," Busch says. "Everything is scrutinized more and every mistake is magnified more greatly with social media and 24-hour news reporting. Everything needs to be a bigger headline and therefore little mistakes are more closely examined."
Mud also sticks faster than ever: "Just because I have done some things off the pitch, a lot of people have the wrong impression of my career," Bendtner said last year during an ill-fated spell at Wolfsburg. During his time in Germany, though, he was dropped by manager Dieter Hecking for inadequate fitness levels.
There comes a stage where mistakes are repeated often enough not to seem coincidental; a stage where you conclude that certain personalities are not cut out for the draining physical and mental toll of modern sport.
At the same time turnarounds are not unprecedented. At Nice, for example, the ailing career of Hatem Ben Arfa was revived last season and led to him joining Paris Saint-Germain, albeit he was dropped from the French champions' squad this week by manager Unai Emery.
"I think everyone has the capacity to learn and improve," Busch says. "Some players don't realise that and as a result make repeatedly bad choices, the same mistakes over and over; some need to experience setbacks in order to deal with that problem, whereas for others that will set them on a path of repeated failure. Everyone has the ability to get better, but not everyone does."
For both Balotelli and Bendtner, the bad choices have to stop; if the present-day game has shown them anything, it is that they need it far more than it requires them.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.