A stable Balotelli makes Man City's talent quotient even more fearsome
It has been said that Mario Balotelli epitomizes the modern-day Manchester City: expensive, supremely talented but with the potential for self-destruction unavoidably woven into his DNA. But after a weekend that swung from the ridiculous to the sublime there are signs that both player and club are overcoming that old design flaw, even if history tells us to expect the unexpected.
How do you solve a problem like Mario? How to you manage a player who is supremely talented but totally infuriating, brilliant but bonkers, exceptional but eccentric? Jose Mourinho, of all people, once described him as "unmanageable" but Roberto Mancini does seem to be finding a way to get the best out of his player ... at least on the pitch, where it really matters.
"Mancini is doing what Mourinho couldn't do," said Balotelli to media in May. "Mourinho couldn't understand me. They are both great managers, but they are different men. Mancini supports me, Mourinho was different.
"Whenever I had a problem, Mourinho always went against me. Maybe it is because we have the same character. Mancini savaged me after the Kiev game, but that was in private. In public, he has always supported me."
The dichotomy that is this mercurial Italian was encapsulated beautifully over the weekend. Having almost burned his house on Friday night after letting off fireworks in his bathroom, something he has since blamed on his friends, Balotelli lit the blue-touch paper with the opening two crucial goals at Old Trafford. David Silva, the Spanish sparkler, pulled the strings delightfully but Balotelli's performance hinted at a growing maturity on the field -- six goals in his past five games suggest he is shouldering the responsibility admirably.
He is a character, all right. There was the T-shirt that asked: "Why Always Me?" (probably because you do daft things like staging a firework display in your bathroom) and his decision to become the face of a firework safety campaign on Monday. But soccer is a game built on characters and these nuances in his personality have attracted goodwill rather than abuse. English soccer has always loved a flawed idol and Balotelli ticks all the boxes.
United themselves, know all about that. Eric Cantona? Remember him? Privileges are often afforded to the exceptional and Balotelli is undoubtedly enjoying some slack, many of his teammates may not have. Will Balotelli prove to be Mancini's Cantona? Who knows. But the way the Italian is dealing with his compatriot does echo Sir Alex Ferguson's way of dealing with the Frenchman. An arm around a shoulder one day, a word of encouragement the next -- Mancini has accepted Balotelli for all his flaws and eccentricities. Whether Balotello can lift City to new heights, as Cantona did with United remains to be seen.
Despite his recent showings it would be wrong to assume that the former Inter Milan striker is a reformed character, just yet. He will continue to make mistakes in his private life and occasionally on the field. After all, this is a 21-year-old going on 14, this is a multimillionaire who would chooses to drive the half-mile down Manchester's Deansgate to his favorite San Carlo restaurant because he loves to show off his red Ferrari. There's rarely anywhere to park it legally outside but he knows he can afford the parking fines and leaves it where he stops it. Logical, yet indefensible.
But, and it's a big, but as long as he continues to perform on the pitch, those sins will be forgiven. Given what had happened in the 24 hours before the game, Manchester United could have been forgiven for banking upon Balotelli becoming deranged with fury sooner or later, or simply acting forlorn and distrait, as he has done on previous occasions this season. But instead, he illuminated the match with a rare and delicate brilliance and was, even more remarkably -- because we know he has talent -- a model of collegiate responsibility.
"I hope for him, for football in general, we arrive at the day when Mario has changed his mind completely," said Mancini to media after the game. "Because with this he could become one of the best three players in the world, like Messi, like Cristiano Ronaldo."
That's not what we expect from the sulkiest enfant terrible; we expect him to flounce and dive and sulk. He did anything but. Having been accused of letting himself, his teammates and his manager down in the run up to the Manchester derby, he put it all right on the pitch. On this occasion the good gloriously outweighed the bad.