There are some footballers, like James Milner, who seem to be born into adulthood. Others, like Carlos Tevez, never appear to embrace maturity. A third Manchester City player, Mario Balotelli, would to most eyes be in the latter category but, he said yesterday, he is growing up. Fast enough to start the Manchester derby?
Those Aston Villa fans he taunted last weekend (or exchanged repartee with, depending on your perspective) may disagree but with four goals in four games, and no red cards or off-field scrapes, he does appear to be a more focused Super Mario this season. That, he says, is partly because he is injury-free, but also because he is at peace with the world.
Speaking of himself in the third person, as celebrities are wont to do, he said: "It is the real Mario who is coming now, and it isn't the same Mario as last year. I knew I could play like this – and [City manager Roberto] Mancini knew how I used to play – but last year I couldn't play at the top [of my ability] because of injury.
"Even last year I think I did good because I didn't play for a long time, but this year it's going to be better, I hope. It has to be better. With the injury I wasn't sure about myself or my body. I didn't tackle because I wasn't sure about myself. This year I feel more free."
Injuries affect most footballers mentally as well as physically. It is a profession plagued by insecurity, even among the very best, as Steven Gerrard underlined when he revealed this week he feared his career might be over following his latest injury. In retrospect it was hardly surprising that Balotelli, a young man with a difficult background, finding his way in a strange country, should have problems. As well as being sent off twice last season he was accused of throwing darts at youth-team players, questioned by Italian police concerning alleged links with the Mafia, and, unwisely given his adopted city's problems with gun violence, pictured wearing a T-shirt with an assortment of firearms on it.
"I changed things in my life," he said, and not just his hairstyle which has seen several incarnations over the last year. "I don't live in town any more. I'm outside now so it's more quiet. I try to stay at home more. Maybe I'll stay in now with my family, my brother or girlfriend. They weren't here last year, they came sometimes but they were not based here. That's definitely helped."
The 21-year-old continued: "It's quieter but also I am growing up. If last year I missed home so much, maybe now I miss it a little less. I'm OK now, I'm good. I'm happy – the only problem in England is weather."
The influence of Mancini has also been significant. The City manager brought Balotelli through at Internazionale. Then, when Balotelli's relationship with Mancini's successor, Jose Mourinho, turned sour, had enough faith in the player's abilities to spend £24m to bring him to England. Mancini subsequently stood by Balotelli throughout his problems settling. "With Mancini I feel very comfortable," Balotelli added. "I've known him a long time and he's a good manager. He believes in me, even when no one in England believed in me, he did. And he kept on believing in me. I want to do something important here with him."
Sunday will provide a good test of how much Mancini believes in his protégé. Does he select the in-form, but combustible Italian for the Manchester derby, or play Edin Dzeko, whose early-season fire has dimmed?
"I played at Old Trafford once with Inter in the Champions League," recalls Balotelli. "We lost 2-0 but I remember I played very well that game so I hope I can play good again. United v City is a game that's different from the Premier League. You have to give it everything. It will be fun."Reuse content