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, was questioned by Italian police concerning alleged links with the Mafia, and, unwisely given his adopted city's problems with gun violence, was pictured wearing a T-shirt with a gun on it.
"I changed things in my life," he said, "like 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 now but also I am growing up. If last year I missed home so much, maybe now I miss it a little bit less. I'm OK now, I'm good. I'm happy – the only problem in England is the weather. Everything [else] is getting better."
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 does he 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. These kind of games are different. The derby in Milan is different to normal Serie A games.
"United v City is a game that's different from the Premier League. You have to give it everything. If you run back for the ball at 100 per cent normally, for the derby you run at 200 per cent. It will be a lot of fun."
United's support will certainly try to have some fun at Balotelli's expense but he insisted: "They can say what they want, I won't say anything to them, I will be focused on the game. All that matters is the result. Nothing else. After the game I might think about the supporters, but not during it or before."
City's vociferous support will do their best to counter abuse from United's fans with their own Balotelli song. It says much for the Italian's new mood that he feels able to laugh at a song which, as well as evoking the dart-throwing incident, also refers to the occasion he was stopped in Moss Side with £20,000 in the glove box of his car, and the time when Balotelli had to be substituted due to an allergic reaction to grass.
"I like it, it's funny," says Balotelli. "I was in Italy and my friend showed me on YouTube. [Now] I can always hear it. It's the best song I've had sung to me."
If he plays tomorrow he will also renew acquaintance with Rio Ferdinand, who was riled by Balotelli's celebrations after City's FA Cup semi-final defeat of United in April at full-time at Wembley. "I didn't even speak to him," insisted Balotelli, "but I don't have anything against him. I just celebrated. I showed him the shirt of City. Obviously, he got angry with me, but for me what happened on the pitch stayed on the pitch. Now we are friends like before. Or we respect each other, anyway."
And if he does not play, if Mancini rotates? "I hope it's not going to happen to me, but if it happens it's normal. We are in a team where everyone is almost at the same level. Everyone can be changed. But I can play wide, left or right, centre or behind the striker. I prefer to be at the top as a striker but if I have to change positions that's OK."
If he really means that Balotelli is indeed maturing, which, given his youth and potential, would be very significant for the huge ambitions of Mancini and his Manchester City team.
Oh, Mario: Balotelli's indiscretions
Car crash Early in his time at Manchester City, Mario Balotelli, driving his Audi R8, was involved in an accident. The police, soon on the scene, asked him why he had £20,000 on him. The answer? "Because I am rich."
Prison visit In October last year, he was questioned after he drove into the grounds of a women's prison in Brescia, Italy.
Dart attack In March this year, the striker escaped punishment following his decision to hurl darts, aimed at youth players, from a first-floor window at City's Carrington training complex.
Tramp giveaway Balotelli then showed his generous side in April when he handed £1,000 to a homeless person following a £25,000 casino win in Manchester.
iPad on the bench In September, he failed to impress the Italy coach, Cesare Prandelli, after taking his iPad to the substitutes' bench during a friendly match with the Faroe Islands.Reuse content