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Hart and Balotelli getting serious

THE banter has stopped between Joe Hart and Mario Balotelli as the Manchester City team-mates recognise the importance of Sunday's Euro 2012 quarter-final.

Speaking ahead of the clash between England and Italy in Kiev, Hart confirmed the pair had been chatting since it was established only one could reach the last four.

And rather than the usual ridicule, the 25-year-old revealed discussions had been much more serious.

"Usually it's the ordinary mickey-taking arguments in training," he said. "Nothing's won or lost. This means something. There's a lot of respect for the game and for each other."

Wayne Rooney is being overshadowed in the build-up to the game, such is the impact Balotelli's mad-cap antics have had in England.

Whether it be calling the fire brigade after fireworks were released in his house, appearing unprompted at the unveiling of Inter Milan boss Andrea Stramaccioni or visiting prisons, there are so many bizarre off-field stories that even those that are not true -- such as wandering round Manchester dressed as Father Christmas giving money away -- seem plausible.

On the pitch Balotelli has been involved in more than his fair share of scrapes too, including three red cards for City last term and rows with team-mates and manager Roberto Mancini.

Yet along with the ridiculous comes the sublime, such as his brilliant goal against the Republic of Ireland on Monday night.

The amateur psychologists have been out in force. And Hart knows Balotelli will not care a jot.

"Outside of football, people have taken a keen interest in what he does because he's quite an extravagant guy," said the England goalkeeper. "Mario accepts, with the way he is, that sometimes he's going to bring attention to himself.

"But he has broad shoulders and I know whatever is written will not affect him.

"People can keep writing. Even when some things were made up, he wasn't bothered. Things like that just kind of slide off him."

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has labelled Balotelli "a puzzle".

Hart cannot offer any unique insight into Balotelli's character, other than to declare him to be: "Totally unpredictable.''