Vieira backing Balotelli to work his waytowards world's striking elite
They still talk about that Mario Balotelli goal -- his first league strike for an Internazionale side that was missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic but which badly needed three points from Atalanta in the final straight of a desperately tight Serie A title push in April 2008.
It wasn't so much the manner of the finish -- though for a young striker barely aged 17 to take the ball to the goalkeeper, feint to shoot and waltz around him showed some nerve -- but the manner of the celebration. There wasn't one.
Balotelli, whose goal killed the game, just held his arms wide nonchalantly and strutted towards the corner flag, barely a flicker of emotion on his face.
"From that day to this he's been known for never celebrating," said one Italian commentator. "It's been interpreted as a form of cockiness but he's saying a goal is a normal thing and it's not worth the fuss."
It's a measure of how few people expected Balotelli to storm onto the English scene that his inscrutable reaction to his two goals against Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday night were such a surprise. It was left to Roberto Mancini to provide the explanation.
The question for City is how far should that nonchalance go. There is no doubt within the Eastlands dressing-room that Balotelli has a more innate goalscoring instinct than Carlos Tevez -- Mancini's assistant David Platt has described him as the club's most natural finisher -- but there is equally little doubt that if an element of naivety is knocked out of his play he can be an even greater force.
Balotelli's instinct to be on the ball, shooting for goal, is all-consuming at times. He was shaping up to have a crack from a free-kick near the touchline at one stage on Wednesday until James Milner insisted that he deliver it instead.
However, it would take a curmudgeonly spirit to overlook the extraordinary brain and firepower with which the £24m man delivered City into the knockout stage of the Europa League -- his first goal against Salzburg was delivered with minimal backlift yet blistering power -- but many at the club do believe that Balotelli must fit in more to the collective ethic which Mancini preaches.
Team-mate Patrick Vieira, who having known him at Inter has been assigned to the task of mentor and minder, declared yesterday that the 20-year-old must work harder. "There's no doubt about it -- the potential and the quality are there," Vieira said.
"But sometimes it is not enough to make a career. If he wants to be one of the top strikers in the world, he needs to work harder than he is doing at the moment.
"He needs to work for the team a bit more. The demands of the Premier League are a bit different from in Italy. If he works harder, he will be really successful."
Vieira is not the first to observe the child in Balotelli. As a prodigiously talented youngster, the Italian would sometimes irritate Walter Salvioni, his coach at the Serie C side AC Lumezzane by refusing to stay after training to listen to tactical talks.
Salvioni tells how Balotelli would smile at him and say: "I have to go home to study." It took him several weeks to discover he was bunking off for five-a-side sessions with his friends.
But Vieira does see signs that he is curbing his temperament in the way Mancini has demanded -- there was no dissent on Wednesday -- and cautions against forgetting how untutored in British football Balotelli still is.
"He's a class striker," Vieira said. "He's somebody who you know will shoot 10 times, hit the target maybe nine times and he will score eight goals. He's a goalscorer, a natural finisher and, of course, as the years pass, he has to improve more.
"He has to work more because the Premier League is demanding (and you need) to work without the ball. But he's in the right team to learn."
Tevez will no doubt give him the same message. In the far more demanding surrounds of Stoke last weekend, Balotelli's peripheral role meant the captain was drawn back deep into midfield to gain possession and City lacked a target in the box when he had won it.
Vieira, who admits to "frustration" about his own limited opportunities, believes Balotelli will heed his advice.
"I know what the demands are in the Premier League and I've got the experience, so my word will be really important to him," he said.
But for now, the striker is having fun. Balotelli was spotted dodging the mixed zone by sneaking out of Eastlands behind journalists late on Wednesday. "I'm not Mario, I'm his brother," he said with a grin, and was gone. (© Independent News Service)