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Rocket man: why the explosive striker needs to be handled with care

Mario Balotelli is producing fireworks on and off the pitch after finally being accepted by his team-mates at City. By Ian Herbert

It seems inconceivable that a T-shirt of such ironic and self-deprecating proportions could be the idea of a young Italian who has needed a fair bit of persuasion to stick at his English lessons, but the garment which will always belong to Manchester's 6-1 derby was, indeed, a product of Mario Balotelli's fertile imagination. "I did it for many reasons, but I'll leave it for other people to figure out what it means," he said yesterday. "I'm sure people can work it out." City's kitman, Les Chapman, was commandeered for the task. "I told him the words and he printed them. He is a good guy Chappy, one of the best!"

The 21-year-old certainly needed to be as swift of mind as of feet to dream up "Why always me?"(right), which he pulled over his head 36 hours after leaving his smoke-damaged home in the hamlet of Mottram St Andrew, though a capacity for satire is an aspect of Balotelli's repertoire far less appreciated here than in Italy. One of his most memorable TV appearances back home was in the show Le Iene, whose presenters doorstep celebrities and send them up. The Italian sports press had been reporting how Balotelli was completing his exams while playing for Internazionale so the programme tested his general knowledge at Inter's training ground. We see Balotelli reciting lines from a Giosue Carducci poem while jogging and answering on the life and times of Napoleon in the midst of press-ups. He does it deadpan. The presenters are creased up.

It is hard not to smile today, either, at the sight of Balotelli holding up a poster urging young people to follow the firework code though there is certainly no joke intended by City's attempt to salvage something from the latest calamitous event in their irrepressible player's life: a house fire caused by a firework going off in his bathroom at 1am on Saturday.

Cheshire Police have closed their investigation into the incident, as there was no criminal intent, and the striker's irresistible display on Sunday meant that he could be presented as Greater Manchester's most improbable champion of firework safety yesterday. "It is an important message that children should not mess with fireworks. They can be very dangerous if they are not used in the right way," said Balotelli, blaming a friend for releasing a firework from his bathroom – "a really stupid thing for him to do", as he described it.

Joe Hart said yesterday his team-mate had come of age. "He's a frustrating character from the outside, sometimes from the inside, too. But this season, certainly in recent weeks, he's left all that behind him," Hart said. It certainly felt like a landmark, as Balotelli was spotted driving around city-centre Manchester in a Bentley convertible, music blaring and high-fiving City fans. He has not won such acclaim since his two goals as a 17-year-old for Roberto Mancini's Internazionale at Juventus in the Coppa Italia secured an aggregate win.

But those who are closest to the player were reluctant to tempt fate with any big pronouncements yesterday. "Let's see him achieve on the pitch first," said one. And though rumours of the player's unhappiness in Manchester have always been overstated, the decision that he should move out of an apartment at No 1 Deansgate to Mottram, half a mile from the Rooney residence, suggests that City remain unsure how best to handle him off the pitch.

The challenge for Mancini is how to allow Balotelli some of his individualism, while keeping him within the rules. City have always been fastidious about trying to fill the long periods Balotelli has to himself, but there is a spontaneous streak which makes him averse to them organising him.

Balotelli has not hit the heights to bear out Mancini's contention that he is one of the best five players in the world and can even be among the top three, though the range of skills he displayed at Old Trafford reveals why the manager has stuck his neck out for him.

Hart said Balotelli's acceptance among team-mates had changed him. "I don't know whether or not he would admit this, but it was difficult for him last year," he said. "He was trying to find himself, in terms of what he was within our squad. It was hard for him, but he's accepted now, he knows he's accepted, he knows his role, which is a massive role, and he's someone we look to in terms of winning us games, which he's done."