Mario Balotelli 22 Striker Manchester City
Genius and idiot. Match-winner and utter liability. Eccentric and generous to the point of philanthropy. Immature and petulant to the point of despair. Poor winner, even poorer loser.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Mario Balotelli, walking, talking contradiction.
Take for instance his ice-cool, almost superhuman resolve when taking a penalty – remember the 95th minute spot-kick in that vital game against title challengers Spurs in January? Not an issue, merely side-footed to the corner as if a lazy strike to finish a light training session with the youth team. Premier League goalkeepers have been stared down, shushed and beaten, Mario remains imperious from the spot.
Then on the other hand, who can forget the petulant loss of control against Arsenal in City’s title run-in where from the first minute onwards he looked like a man on a mission to get himself sent off, which he duly did having collected two needless yellows when in reality he could have had five. Roberto Mancini admitted if he felt he’d had a better option he would have taken Balo off before half-time and despite an interval spent explaining that the team could probably do with eleven men on the pitch, ever his own man Mario continued down the path to self-destruction.
And that wasn’t his first rodeo.
In an interview with CNN’s Pedro Pinto, Jose Mourinho spoke of his tempestuous time with Mario at Inter as ‘a comedy’, a story surrounding a Champions League tie with Rubin Kazan in 2009 particularly prescient. With Inter light on striking options Balotelli started with instructions to keep his head at all costs, something he responded to by getting himself booked needlessly in the twentieth-minute. Having spent fourteen of his allotted fifteen minutes at halftime reiterating to Mario that they needed him on the pitch and to keep his cool, the special one watched on as the inevitable second yellow came on the hour and Balo trudged off, protesting his innocence and shrugging his shoulders at his manager on the way.
And therein lies the enigma of Mario Balotelli – an unshakable will to be individual from someone who makes a living as part of a team. He plays on his instincts, good and bad, but has to learn to be able to be classed as part of a tactical plan and then execute a role accordingly if he is to live up to his immense potential. You get the impression that life in the goldfish bowl as a celebrity sometimes suits him far better than the nonsense of having to concentrate on football as a day job.
During this summer’s Euros we saw the very best of Super Mario at times, the bare-chested celebration in a quite simply magnificent display against Germany a highlight. Domestically at the end of the season we had seen the worst - a manager forced to ignore his pleas to play for fear of more damage being done to his team’s title ambitions. One wonders which experience Mario will have learnt more from?
There is greatness within and of that there is no doubt. Witness his performance in said European Championship semi-final or his one-man destruction of Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park last season for proof. The problem is there’s still all the other stuff too - the recklessness, the selfishness, the ego and the headlines. Statistics don’t always tell the full story but if ever there was one that summed Mario’s time in England up so far it would be this - he is to date the only player to have featured in fewer than 50 Premier League games and be sent off more than twice. He’s not a dirty player, a cheat or a traditional hard-case by any stretch, it’s just he struggles to reign in his immaturity on the pitch for the good of the team.
Last year we wrote several things that we could have copy and pasted straight into this year’s piece, but it’s perhaps the last line that rings truest –
‘It’s down to Mario from this point onward. Things could get exciting.’
That sentiment still stands and the key word around Mario remains ‘exciting’ but that doesn’t always relate to his performance on the pitch - increasingly so as this season ticks on. For the Mario-machine to work you feel he has to want it, he has to work hard and he has to listen to his manager. The problem is that in making that point, as bigger case for those three things never happening can be made as the one that says he is going to knuckle down and live up to the quite awesome promise.
This is a testing time as he finds himself in a difficult position club wise. If City go one up top Balo’s not the man, if they pick a front two the more fluid Aguero and Tevez fall naturally into those places. If they go with a front three he either finds himself pushed wide – a position he can struggle with as his natural instinct remains to continually come inside and his instinct to track back is not far off nil – or again with no place in the side as Silva, Nasri et al make a more reliable case for inclusion. When given the rare chance to play centrally this season he has looked lazy and disinterested at times, wildly out of form at others, and the last remaining position of resident super-sub has been taken by a reluctant Edin Dzeko. This means the main man finds himself a bit-part player and that’s not a suit he’s wearing well.
You can see in his body language that something’s just not there so far this season. While the apologists have long applauded the shrugs, the t-shirts and the myth, even they have to admit it must be backed up with form good enough to get away with it. His manager still loves him but maybe we’re looking at something that feels too paternal in a situation that requires absolute professionalism. At the moment it’s just not happening and a solution needs to be found one way or another, regardless of just how much Noel Gallagher ‘rates him’ or how funny it was when he just did that thing away from football.
And so to the grade - a C - exactly the same as we gave him last year and we are well aware of the inevitable criticism it will bring from those who believe a good story is worth more than a good performance. We know that it should and could be higher, the problem is that we also know it should and could be lower. For all the good comes the bad, for all the bad there remains the genius, for all the genius there remains the obvious flaws that could be easily rectified. We are giving him the C as for every lowlight in a City shirt you can argue there’s also been a high and his performance at the Euros was excellent. The truth of the matter however is that we all know in a year in which he won the Premier League and scored 20+ goals this really should be a higher grade, but the baggage and the form so far this campaign means it can’t be.
This is his time but he has to want it - would a move away and regular games as the fulcrum of a team be the making of Super Mario? Does he need to be at a club of the stature of Manchester City to feed his ego to in turn feed the talent? Does the answer lie in a move back to Italy on loan or longer term? As ever with Balotelli it’s the full Johnny Nash (there are more questions than answers – look it up on YouTube kids), as ever with Balotelli it is down to him to live up to the hoards who defend his every action and silence those who have all but given up on him.
Our advice for what its worth would be to start listening to the criticism and not the apologists. If he looks back at his career and his legacy is to have been a ‘character’ it’ll be a disaster, because when you catch a glimpse of Mario the footballer it’s something very special indeed.
"Can't help thinking that he needs to be somewhere where he is king, a lord of the underdogs that is loved as a god and a genius - he's just too dilluted in Manchester. Erm, you know if Napoli end up selling Cavani...." - Jeff Livingstone (IBWM)
C How do you solve a problem like Mario? Could be an A, could be an E, we’ve given up guessing - over to you Super M
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