It says much about the Mario Balotelli we’ve come to know that in the midst of an apparent renaissance, there are still more column inches about his colourful character than his football.
More talk of helicopters (Super Mario has promised to fly a helicopter over Nice should they win Ligue 1) and general barminess than analysis of just why the Italian striker is experiencing a surprise revival.
And a surprise it is. After his disastrous time at Anfield (one league goal in 16 appearances and Four in 28 across all competitions) and an underwhelming loan spell at AC Milan (a single goal in 20 league games), Balotelli’s free transfer to OGC Nice in the summer looked like a last desperate roll of the dice.
A gamble for a player running short on options. And a gamble for the club – could they revive the career of one of the game’s most recognised faces, just as they had done with the similarly down on his luck Hatem Ben Arfa last term? Or would it be a big wage packet down the drain?
There’s little doubt that those few who probably still cared expected it to be the latter.
But Balotelli has surprised and impressed all with the start to his Ligue 1 career. Seven goals in nine appearances – as many as he had managed in the preceding two seasons – have people taking note once more.
There’s even talk of a return to the Italian squad. Could this prodigiously talented but famously distracted young man finally be ready to deliver on a consistent basis?
The initial evidence is positive. What’s most striking about his six league goals to date – goals which have helped propel Nice to the top of Ligue 1 – is not just the quality, but the variety.
A header, an unerring one on one, a couple from the edge of the box, a wonderful right-footed curler and only the one penalty – the fact that he’s scoring from open play demonstrating his focus and engagement.
The 26 year-old seems happy playing his football on the Cote D’Azur. Perhaps the relatively low profile of the club and the general lack of expectation have helped.
When the Italian pitched up on Merseyside in the summer of 2014, he arrived at a Liverpool that had just failed to win the Premier League but that still had serious hopes of going one better, despite the exit of the prolific Luis Suarez.
There was serious expectation. And there was serious expectation that the new man could help fill the gap, after rebuilding his career at AC Milan in the previous two seasons, banging in 30 goals in 54 appearances.
Ultimately, however, it was a case of wrong time, wrong place for Balotelli. Liverpool had not recruited well enough to push on and suffered an almost season-long injury crisis.
And it became evident that the former Manchester City man really wasn’t what Brendan Rodgers wanted – his languid style simply not suited to the coach’s intensive, high press game. And if he wasn’t going to fit the Rodgers style, he hadn’t a prayer of playing for Klopp.
Perhaps that gives us a clue as to why his fortunes seem to be turning in France. Under the approach of new manager Lucien Favre – a man with something of a reputation for inspiring revivals (see Hertha Berlin and more famously Borrussia Mönchengladbach) – Balotelli has been given licence to just be himself.
Nice play an attractive, short passing possession game where there is much less emphasis on strikers pressing high. Moreover, when he has figured – lacking a proper pre-season, Favre has managed the Italian’s comeback mixing extra training with days off – Balotelli has been aided by young and hungry support players willing to do the hard yards, while he waits for his chance to strike. And strike he has.
One wonders, however, that as the pressure builds on the unlikely table toppers through the season, will Balotelli lead or will his old habits return? It is nice to see him happy and playing well.
Despite his at times bizarre career, there is still a level of goodwill towards the player. But can he be trusted to see it through?
After all, the memories of his revival at the San Siro three seasons ago were almost completely erased by his time at Liverpool. Is his flakiness really a thing of the past? Have we been here before?