By Greg Stobart
‘Why Always Me?’ asked Mario Balotelli on a T-shirt revealed during the Manchester derby in October. The answer was clearer than ever on Sunday as he scored the winning goal over Tottenham at a time when he should have been back in the changing room contemplating his own stupidity.
The Italian has fascinated fans since his move to City from Inter in 2010, a constant form of entertainment whether setting off fireworks in his bathroom, putting money behind the bar in his local pub or tackling school bullying.
But there was nothing of the loveable or eccentric about Balotelli’s stamp on Scott Parker in the 84th minute of City’s dramatic 3-2 win at the Etihad Stadium.
After tangling with the England international following a blocked shot, Balotelli violently kicked his foot down onto Parker’s head, in an obviously unnatural manner that looked very much intentional. The referee, Howard Webb, missed the incident and Balotelli escaped a red card.
Not long later, deep into stoppage time, the 21-year-old was winning - and then scoring - the penalty that put Tottenham all but out of the title race.
“It’s not the first time he has done that is it? And I’m sure it won’t be the last," Spurs manager Harry Redknapp said when asked about Balotelli's image as a loveable eccentric.
“He was annoyed he didn’t win the challenge and now Scott has a nasty cut on his face.
“I don’t like people kicking people in the head on the football pitch. What reason did he have to back-heel Scott in the head? It’s not a nice thing to do. It’s wrong.”
Redknapp expressed his surprise that officials missed the incident, and the FA are likely to take retrospective action against the City striker. Joleon Lescott could also find himself in trouble for a forearm smash on Spurs defender Younes Kaboul that also escaped the eye of the officials.
|PATH TO GLORY
Man City's key 10 PL fixtures
||Tottenham (H) (Won 3-2)
||Aston Villa (A)
|Mar 10||Swansea (A)|
|Mar 17||Chelsea (H)|
|Mar 24||Stoke (A)|
|Mar 31||Sunderland (H)|
It rubbed salt into Tottenham’s - and Parker’s - wounds that Balotelli should be the matchwinner after the visitors had launched a stirring comeback from 2-0 down and seen Jermain Defoe miss a glorious chance to score a last-gasp winner himself.
If Defoe’s missed symbolised the fact that Spurs are just short of being genuine title contenders, City's last-gasp winner bore the mark of champions. Balotelli kept his cool when all around him had lost their heads to give City three points they hardly deserved, slotting the spot-kick low and true after being tripped by Ledley King. It could be looked upon come May as the decisive moment in the title race as City look to win their first championship in 44 years.
Balotelli’s 25-odd minutes was his City career in microcosm: the good, bad and ugly, a headline-maker for the right reasons as well as the wrong. Few players in recent history have been able to match such ability with such personality and such controversy with such genius.
It’s why his manager, Roberto Mancini, believes Balotelli can be the best player in the world, genuinely on the same level as the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s why City paid £24 million to sign the player after Inter gave up on his poor attitude.
Mancini described Balotelli as ‘crazy’ in October when the striker scored twice in the 6-1 mauling of Manchester United - in which he revealed that now famous T-shirt - less than 48 hours after being forced to flee from his burning home.
Balotelli has become a cult hero among the City fans, romanticised by the regularity of colourful stories about him. Some are not true, like the myth that he paid for the homeless to stay in the Hilton Hotel on New Year’s Eve, or the one that he drove up and down Deansgate dressed as Father Christmas and handed out wads of cash through his Lamborghini’s window.
It is hard to see through the headlines that make Balotelli one of the biggest characters in the game, his antics generally switching somewhere between the ridiculous and the absurd.
His first season in England will most likely be remembered for his struggles with training bibs, a funny hat and his cheeky wink at Rio Ferdinand as the pair rowed in the aftermath of the FA Cup semi-final.
On the pitch, Balotelli was underwhelming in 2010-11. The odd piece of brilliance served as a reminder of his potential, but his performances were often heavily criticised by both the supporters and his manager.
He was labelled lazy and moody. The real problem was not his reluctance to smile after scoring, as some suggested, but the lack of workrate, particularly in away games when the going was tough.
Mancini looked exasperated at times, but he is the one manager who has always maintained faith in Balotelli, always been prepared to take on the challenge. Balotelli ran out of chances with Jose Mourinho at Inter but, after a few warnings, he is now flourishing under Mancini's firm but fair stance.
He has settled off the pitch, too, believe it or not. After initially refusing to live in the boring suburbs, Balotelli has moved out of his city centre apartment and has now settled into life in Manchester, where he lives with his girlfriend.
Settled being a relative term. You sense this is about as normal as it will ever get with Balotelli. And he is still making sure to leave his mark. On the scoresheet, on the title race and, alas, on his opponents.
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