Balotelli faces acid test against United
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 Sunday’s 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.”
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. “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.”
The influence of Mancini has also been significant.
The City manager brought Balotelli through at Internazionale then, when the player'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.
“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 protege. 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?
“United v City is a game that's different from the Premier League. I think it will be a lot of fun,” he said.
City's vociferous support will do their best to counter abuse from United's fans with a 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,” laughs City’s newly relaxed superstar.