Mario Balotelli: Rocket man, handle with care

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

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?", 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. Such are the fine lines between triumph and disaster. The rocket he would have received had he failed to deliver at Old Trafford might have been the finishing of him.

Joe Hart said yesterday his team-mate had come of age. "He's a frustrating character from the outside, and 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 from a match since his two goals as a 17-year-old for Roberto Mancini's Internazionale at Juventus in the Coppa Italia secured an aggregate win and sent photographers scurrying to the Brescia home of his foster parents, Franco and Silvia.

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. There was logic to Balotelli moving into the glass-fronted apartment block in central Manchester, rather than the solitude of Robinho's Prestbury apartment where the space and the sheer number of gadgets captivated him, and his need for distractions hasn't changed in the 15 months since. The rationale now seems to be that a quiet life is best.

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. If there's a pre-planned itinerary on offer, he will dodge it. Fireworks and the local St Ann's hospice aside, he has not gone in for club PR appearances because a cause has to mean something to him. A chance meeting in Milan with two representatives – one Bosnian, one Sudanese – for the campaign against the use of child soldiers has made him a crusader for that cause. Refuges for destitute children and women in the Brazilian favelas are another. There is an intellect there if those working with him can reach it.

Privately, Balotelli is indignant about his characterisation in a British press which casts him as a liability rather than the celebrity he remains to an obsessed Italian media, and this was evident in his discussion of the fireworks yesterday. "I don't care what people say about me," he said. "People are interested in my private life, but the thing at the weekend didn't come from me, it came from one of my friends and one of my brother's friends. In a bad period people can talk about you and say what they want. What anyone else says is not important."

Balotelli has not hit 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. From the sheer bull's strength which left Jonny Evans fatefully hauling him back in the penalty area to the delicate back-heel integral to Sergio Aguero's goal – City's third – it was a performance with everything. The Aguero goal delighted him most. "I think the best goal we scored at United was Sergio's," Balotelli said. "We played like a team for that one. Only a good team can score a goal like that."

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." Only time will tell if this confidence is justified and was something merchandisers didn't waste as they seized on Balotelli's literary talents yesterday. Umbro's limited-edition "Why always me?" T-shirts sold out by late afternoon though Balotelli said there would be no more. "No, because otherwise I'll get booked every week," he grinned. "It was a one-off for United!"

United stand: How they react to humblings

Manchester United have won 10 and drawn one of the games that have directly followed their last 11 league defeats. They have not lost two games in a row since March 2009. But how have they fared after suffering shock league defeats?

1991-92

Lost 4-1 v QPR (Old Trafford, 1 January)

Won 1-0 v Everton (Old Trafford, 11 January)

QPR arrived with United second in the league in a race with Leeds. A Dennis Bailey hat-trick threw a spanner in the works, but United quickly returned to winning ways in both domestic cups against title-rivals Leeds. Went on to win League Cup, but lost out on title to Leeds.



1996-97

Lost 5-0 v Newcastle (above)(St James' Park, 20 October)

Lost 6-3 v Southampton (The Dell, 26 October)

Lost 2-1 v Chelsea (Old Trafford, 2 November

After a 1-0 win against Arsenal in the next game results began to pick up and they went the next 16 unbeaten. By January, United were top of the league ... and stayed there.

1999-2000

Lost 5-0 v Chelsea (Stamford Bridge, 3 October)

Won 4-1 v Watford (Old Trafford, 16 October)

Lost 3-1 v Tottenham (White Hart Lane, 23 October)

United made an excellent start to the season and were unbeaten until the Chelsea thrashing. Faltered at Spurs before bouncing back with eight wins in their next 10 games. Won the title by 18 points.



2008-09

Lost 4-1 v Liverpool (Old Trafford, 14 March)

Lost 2-0 v Fulham (Craven Cottage, 21 March)

Won 3-2 v Aston Villa (Old Trafford, 5 April)

Humiliated at home by Fernando Torres, followed by a 2-0 loss at Fulham, but United maintained their title grip with a late winner from Federico Macheda against Villa, and went on to win the league and reach the Champions League final.

By Rishi Ghosh-Curling and Tom Cook

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