Hammers mad to ignore talent of 'crazy' Balotelli

Obinna is quick to defend former Inter team-mate ahead of crunch City clash
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The Independent Football

When a coach as accomplished as Jose Mourinho condemns a player for lacking mental strength and "sometimes not knowing how to use his brain" it takes a brave (or foolish) club to pay £23 million for the young man in question; even a club with Manchester City's resources.

Mario Balotelli, far from winning over the doubters, has so far collected more yellow cards (11) than goals (10) since leaving Internazionale for east Manchester, having failed to score since 2 March while prompting further lurid headlines by provoking a fracas at Wembley after the FA Cup semi-final and throwing a dart uncomfortably close to a group of youth-team players.

Then there was the second red card of the season for planting studs in the chest of a Dynamo Kiev player,after which even City's manager, Roberto Mancini, said: "I hope every day he will change his behaviour."

In West Ham's Victor Obinna, who hopes to be in opposition to his friend and former Inter colleague at Eastlands this afternoon, mention of Balotelli provokes a simultaneous broad smile and shake of the head. "For me he is a very interesting lad. He does a lot of funny things but I think he's a good kid.

"He's a little bit not the way people want him to be. Anything Mario Balotelli does, people want to talk about it. Sometimes the press has to give him a little bit of freedom and time to adapt. He needs to adapt to English football, he's never left Italy before and it's difficult with no family. I've done that, when I was 17, and I was able to cope well, but it's different for him. Yes, sometimes he does some crazy things, doesn't think before he does them..."

Bravely taking on the role of older brother, Obinna would occasionally remonstrate with him, almost certainly more gently than Mourinho did. "He would say, 'I know, brother, I know, I know'. That's the way he is. We just have to give him time, because he's got talent everyone knows about." If anyone can bring a wayward talent to heel, then he believes it is Mancini: "He's the one that got him to Inter, just like me. He's like a father to him, he knows his character and can deal with him. He knows how to talk to him. Mourinho didn't and when two forces clash like that, it's a bit tense."

Touching as all this concern is, the powerful Obinna has more important matters to worry about. With four games to play, West Ham are bottom of the League, just as they were when City won comfortably (3-1) at Upton Park in December. Since then there have been two little spurts, briefly taking them out of the relegation places, but never for very long. They go to Manchester on the back of four successive defeats and without two of the midfield workers in whom supporters would place most faith, Scott Parker and Mark Noble.

Meanwhile, the co-owner David Sullivan has made an unhelpful inter-vention in suggesting the team have only a 25 per cent chance of staying up and that the many players out of contract this summer cannot be trusted to give everything to the cause.

Obinna, who is on loan from Inter until the end of the season, says: "We're in a very difficult situation. I've reallyenjoyed playing here and the fans have been outstanding. The priority now is to make sure West Ham stay in the Premiership and after that we'll see what's going to happen. We just have to deal with it."

Amid occasional signs of promise in a harsh 3-0 defeat by Chelsea last weekend, the one glaring failure was missing chances. Obinna admits: "At this stage you have to capitalise on all the chances that come. You don't know how many will come and if you have one, you just have to make use of it. During training this week the coaches have done well and we've practised that."

Avram Grant, who was a telephone call away from being replaced by Martin O'Neill in January, can have few illusions about continued employment if West Ham go down for the second time in eight years. He claims to like the club's owners and to find Sullivan "full of life", while acknowledging that all owners "want results immediately... yesterday". They cannot be over-optimistic about achieving one today, which means that games against Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland, two of them at home, will determine the team's fate.

"I believe with all my heart, and this is the reason I came here," Grant says, "that if we do the right steps this will be a good club that you enjoy watching. But you can't push a buttonand have success."

Manchester City v West Ham United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4.10pm