SAO PAULO (AP) – Only 21 years old, Mario Balotelli may be showing improvement that belies his reputation. (Photo: AP Photos: Fabrizio Giovannozzi)
A complicated, almost unfathomable character, Mario Balotelli's immense athletic gifts are often overshadowed by his inexplicably erratic, petulant behavior. Consequently, Manchester Citys Italian attacker has been branded unmanageable, eccentric and wild during his short but conspicuous career. Part tortured artist, part narcissistic harlequin, Balotelli has becoming one of footballs most divisive and intriguing figures. Since arriving at the Etihad Stadium from Internazionale in the summer of 2010, 21-year-old's life has if the tabloid press is to be believed resembled a thundering maelstrom: the convergence of scandal, arrogance and the downright bizarre. While dart-throwing, animal-loving, bully-confronting, tramp-befriending and casino-frequenting may keep Balotelli's name in the press for reasons other than football, his professional life has also endured more than its fair share of turbulence. As a result, much of the progress 'Super' Mario has made during his time with City has been checked. Last seasons training ground fights with teammates Jerome Boateng and Vincent Kompany did the Italians reputation no good, while reported arguments with manager Roberto Mancini and various public tantrums seemed to further undermine his position within the club. More recently there have been signs that Balotelli is maturing - beginning to more fully realize his considerable potential. With Carlos Tevez disgraced in Munich (and duly suspended), Balotelli was handed his first Premier League start of the season at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday. Beginning the game on the left side of Citys attack but moving to a more central position following the injury to Sergio Agero, Balotelli looked particularly lively, causing Rovers' defenders continual problems with his intelligent movement and natural power.
One of the most eye-catching players on display, Balotelli peppered Paul Robinsons goal all afternoon, taking his 59th minute goal superbly, muscling in front of Scott Dann to turn in Samir Nasris cross. While it may only have been Blackburn, currently one of the Premier Leagues most beleaguered sides, Dann and Christopher Samba are accomplished center-backs. Yet, the tandem were made to look nervous and harried by Balotelli's dynamism. However, despite all of his technical excellence, Balotelli's visibly positive attitude was arguably (and ironically) the most impressive element of his performance. An infamously moody player with a history of losing interest in games when things dont go his way, Balotelli's Saturday was marked by great endeavor, creating chances all afternoon. It was the performance of a professional hungry for success, not the immature and uninterested boy which the striker is regularly portrayed as. Of course, this was just one performance, but it was one of Balotellis best in a Manchester City shirt - an indication of the improvements he has made in recent months. Seemingly more willing to work for the collective than he once was, the former Nerazzurri appeared to turn a corner during last seasons FA Cup semifinal. A thorn in Manchester United's side, Balotelli demonstrated his ability under pressure in even the most high-profile of fixtures. Since then, despite occasional lapses into mercurial behaviors, Balotelli has generally been a more reliable on-field presence for his club. With behind the scenes whispers at the Etihad Stadium suggesting that the striker has become more focused - not complaining despite regularly being made to take his place amongst the substitutes - we could be witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in his developing career. Whether Balotelli has ironed out the more anarchistic elements of his personality remains to be seen, but the signs certainly augur well. Balotelli's clearly a player possessing all the physical and technical attributes required to succeed at the top level. If he can build on recent improvements, become more consistent, and continue leveling his temperament, 'Super' Mario could have an important role to play in determining Citys fortunes. Hell never be a conformist and why would we want him to be? but Mario Balotelli is starting to prove his worth to Manchester City.