High-flying Balotelli seeks oasis of calm
As Noel Gallagher quizzes the striker, City sense new maturity
Mario Balotelli does feel the repercussions. It is just that his manager doesn't always make it seem that way. When the lease expired on his Deansgate flat in central Manchester Balotelli moved out to rural Cheshire, because he'd always wanted a big rural pad. But after one of his Italian friends let off that firework in the Mottram St Andrew bathroom and he was forced temporarily to move out, it was considered best that he went elsewhere. The fireworks have sent Balotelli down in the world, because the new place is smaller than he might have hoped.
And then there was Cesare Prandelli's decision to drop him from the Italy team who lost 1-0 at home to the United States this week, because of his conduct in England. The Italian media felt the game illustrated the nation's need of the 21-year-old. "Call, Mario. Call for the love of God. Telephone Prandelli and swear you'll be good,' a Gazetta dello Sport headline implored a few days ago.
But Roberto Mancini said yesterday that the omission had hurt his player more than the outside world knew. "My opinion is that Mario was upset," said the Manchester City manager.
We are as far away as ever from understanding Balotelli's mind. He detests interviews, yet is rather flattered by the notion of sitting down with celebrities and football legends, so it will be Noel Gallagher, who was putting the questions for Football Focus yesterday, who will help enlighten us in next weekend's programme.
Mancini did not pretend that his frequent requests for calm from the striker have made a difference, and he actually suggested that Prandelli was "correct" when he said, on dropping Balotelli, that "he can still have an extraordinary career, but there is no justification for certain types of behaviour."
Yes, said the City manager, "we know that Mario is a top player but he should improve his behaviour."
The six yellow cards and one red, the eight games suspended and a villain's role in the Premier League pantomime have made his season tempestuous, though some who know Balotelli tell a different story – about England offering the calm environment he needs in his first extended time away from home. Though the striker does feel his alleged off-field transgressions are exaggerated more by the English press than the softer, more show-business absorbed Italian papers, he is no longer mobbed when he ventures out. He finds the day-to-day media scrutiny less intense here and experiences a less volatile environment at football grounds.
England's determination to stamp on racist behaviour is especially welcome – the abuse he allegedly experienced at Porto recently was a reminder of what he has now and what he left behind in Milan. And though their relationship has been presented as something superficial, Balotelli's involvement with Rafaella Fico, a frequent visitor from Italy, is understood to have been stabilising.
Of course, these were not areas that Mancini covered in his latest discussion of his player's slow maturation yesterday, as he prepared for a home match with Bolton Wanderers today in which City will seek to open a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League. There is always an air of indulgence about these conversations and to the question of whether Balotelli had actually gone back to Mottram, Mancini replied: "I don't know if he is living in his house or his car!"
Mancini, like Prandelli, has condemned Balotelli publicly at times, though the City manager is the individual in whom Balotelli has more trust than perhaps any other inside or outside football – to the point that it is becoming hard to imagine the striker playing for anyone else. The impression is that he will follow Mancini and his entourage – David Platt, Attilio Lombardo and Ivan Carminati – wherever they go.
Mancini has seen evidence that Balotelli has changed. There was no "shush" gesture to fans in Porto, as there almost certainly would have been in his Internazionale days. "The moment should arrive that Mario plays only football. I trust him. He's a good guy. Sometimes he makes a mistake," said Mancini – who also suggested that Carlos Tevez would be "invaluable for the last six or seven games" of the season.
You suspect that with Balotelli, as with Wayne Rooney, there will never be "only football", due to the unteachable unpredictability of both players.
"The England team has a good team," Mancini said. "Mario is different to their players. Maybe Rooney was like Mario at 21. He is more mature than Mario now. There are few players in the Euros who can do what Mario can."
Ten minutes later, a white Lamborghini tore up the Carrington drive. It appeared to be Balotelli, running late for Gallagher and, for the time being at least, still in a blinding hurry.
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