Dark side still overshadows Balotelli skill
Mario Balotelli's choice of headwear as he arrived for Manchester City's Premier League clash with Everton at Eastlands on Monday night -- a woollen hat which resembled the head of a chicken -- did little to diminish the perception of the 20-year-old as the most eccentric Premier League import since Eric Cantona.
His subsequent outspoken comments, after receiving Tuttosport's Golden Boy award, about his own ability, the 'unknown' Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere and his lingering dream to return to Italy to play for AC Milan were along similar lines to those uttered by Cantona at his most provocative.
City manager Roberto Mancini, who identified the prodigiously talented son of Ghanaian immigrants as a potential world-beater while in charge of Inter Milan, recently compared Balotelli to Cantona in terms of the inspiration and unpredictability that he can provide on the pitch at Eastlands.
But on and off the pitch, the boy who habitually strolls into the grey Mancunian winter wearing wraparound sunglasses, is proving to be as reliable as a wild mustang. Unstoppable when the mood takes him, borderline uncontrollable when it does not.
Balotelli (pictured below) produced arguably his worst performance in a City shirt since his £22m arrival from Inter in August before limping out of the 2-1 Everton defeat with a knee injury. Those who witnessed his no-show at Stoke last month would argue that he was even more anonymous at the Britannia Stadium.
Five goals in nine appearances for City emphasise the good angels in Balotelli's psyche, but while he has yet to convince the sceptics at Eastlands that his brilliance can outshine his dark side, the player has no doubts over his ability after emulating Barcelona star Lionel Messi by winning the Golden Boy award, which is presented to the world's leading U-21 player each year.
"My objective is that this prize, in the near future, will lead to the Golden Ball without an age limit," Balotelli said. "Winning the Golden Boy is obviously a good omen for obtaining the main prize, which I have wanted from the very beginning.
"Who else would have won it other than me? There is only one (of the former winners) who is a bit stronger than me -- Messi. All of the others are way behind me."
When asked for his opinion of England midfielder Wilshere, the 18-year-old who made his international debut earlier this season, Balotelli was dismissive of a player regarded as one of the Premier League's rising stars.
He said: "What's he called? Wil...? No, I have not heard of him yet, but next time I play against Arsenal I will have to pay attention.
"Maybe I could show him the Golden Boy and remind him that I won it."
Despite his impressive goals-to-game ratio in a City shirt, Balotelli, who is battling to overcome a knee injury to face Newcastle on St Stephen's Day, has also produced some woeful displays for Mancini's team.
His debut as a substitute in the Europa League qualifier against FC Timisoara in Romania in August encapsulated everything about the Italian forward -- supremely talented, but prone to mishaps.
City had been toiling against the home team until Balotelli transformed the game by gliding through the Romanians before scoring the only goal of the game. He then suffered a knee injury in the closing stages which sidelined him for two months.
That lay-off did little to help him adjust to English football. He underwent surgery and rehabilitation in Italy, during which time he paid an unannounced visit to a women's prison in Brescia due to his curiosity as to the workings of the institution.
There have been rumours dressing-room clashes with team-mates and Balotelli was photographed grappling with City defender Jerome Boateng in training earlier this month.
Balotelli has struggled to adjust to English football and found it difficult to settle in the City dressing-room, where he has few friends.
While England defender Micah Richards is close to the Italian, Balotelli is generally perceived as a loner and he was one of few players not to attend the team's fancy dress Christmas party recently.
Perhaps he hadn't bought the hat in time.
Mancini is determined to persevere with Balotelli, however, despite the growing suspicion that the player's yearning for Italy will see him return home in the not-too-distant future.
Balotelli said: "I say to Ibra (AC Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic) that if he continues to call me to Milan, one day his wish will be granted, and I will be able to wear the red-and-black shirt." (© Daily Telegraph, London)