Super Mario is back!
After an unhappy beginning to the season with Nice, mercurial frontman Mario Balotelli has wasted no time establishing himself as the darling of Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, going some way to solve OM’s offensive crisis and lifting them back into contention for a Champions League spot next season.
It has taken the 28-year-old - who arrived on a free transfer in January with a deal that runs through until the end of the season - just 323 minutes to score four goals for his new side, making him their joint second top league scorer behind Florian Thauvin.
Now OM fans have been left to ponder what might have been if the club had successfully signed the frontman in the summer, as they had wished.
That drawn-out, frustrating saga wrought anger towards the striker from certain sections of supporters, yet any dissenting voices have been quelled by the ex-Liverpool forward’s explosive start to life at the Velodrome, where his self-confident, swaggering attitude is something to be admired rather than demeaned.
“He needs to feel loved,” head coach Rudi Garcia said last month, and there is no doubt that is the case in Marseille, where supporters are passionate about the game like nowhere else in France.
It was that atmosphere that Balotelli craved.
“When I came to Marseille with Nice in previous years, I already loved the fans,” he told RMC. “I hope that my relationship with them will be even stronger over time. It’s a beautiful relationship.”
When he was taken off during the 2-0 win over Amiens in the middle of February, he was given a standing ovation by a 50,000-strong crowd and his name was chanted to the tune of ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ – an honour previously afforded to Fabrizio Ravanelli, a hero of the club.
And Balotelli’s showmanship has only increased this affection. His goal celebration on Sunday, when he netted with an acrobatic volley against Saint-Etienne in a vital 2-0 victory, went viral as he went live on Instagram to celebrate with his team-mates.
After the match, Jean-Louis Gasset, the visiting coach, paid tribute to the qualities of the forward.
“Balotelli, with his physical power, made us concede the opening goal,” he lamented.
“He takes the pressure and carries the light for his team, he reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he scored a goal in the style of Ibrahimovic.
“He’s brought back the Marseille fans, the team’s confidence and many of his team-mates have raised their level of play.”
The Marseille version of Balotelli is winning fans all over the country, with his attitude a tidy fit to the freewheeling exhibitionism that the south-coast club thrives upon. He has the type of personality that attracts fans as he leaves people guessing what he might do next.
Vikash Dhorasoo, a former PSG player and a member of France’s World Cup squad in 2006, is an unlikely fan.
“He doesn’t just score goals, he has 10 times more social media followers than there are people that live in Marseille. He jokes on the field,” he told L’Equipe. “That’s all Balotelli. He brings something else.
“I love it. I watch OM matches for him.”
It is little coincidence that Marseille’s fortunes have improved since he arrived, although it has taken head coach Rudi Garcia to tinker with his squad and shift to a 4-4-2 formation to bring the best from the team.
Following a lamentable winter, they have scrambled to within five points on Lyon in third place ahead of a derby match at home against Nice on Sunday.
That will offer Balotelli the opportunity to meet his former colleagues and, perhaps most pertinently, his former coach Patrick Vieira, who was unable to get a single goal from him during the first half of the campaign.
The Balotelli that will take to the field on Sunday is a very different animal: a powerful goalscoring machine and, worryingly for Nice, one with a point to prove.