Mario Balotelli: Can the Italian Maverick Become City's X-Factor?

David HendrickContributor IIISeptember 26, 2011

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Mario Balotelli of Manchester City scores to make it 1-0 during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Everton at the Etihad Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Some love him, some hate him, others simply shake their head and shrug their shoulders when his name comes up in conversation. Even his own manager doesn't quite know what to think about him.

There are very few players in the game today that divide opinion like Mario Balotelli.

A player of unquestionable footballing ability who is capable of brilliance, but also capable of doing very silly things, at very silly times. Some say he is a prodigy who just needs a manager that can handle him properly, others say he is simply a lost cause.

Personally, I fall into the first group. In my opinion Balotelli is one of the most talented young strikers in world football who was simply exposed to too much too soon, and started to believe his own hype a bit too much.

But I see nothing that can't be fixed by the right manager.

To understand Balotelli, you have to understand his background. Born into poverty to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, Balotelli suffered from a life threatening intestine disorder for which he required numerous operations as an infant.

At the age of three, he was given up for fostering by his parents who felt they could not provide a decent life for him. He was taken in by a white family and grew up an outsider who was constantly subjected to racist abuse. 

That sort of childhood leaves a mark, and it's clear that Balotelli carries that mark with him to this day. He tends to over compensate for his poor childhood by lavishly overspending and living a luxurious lifestyle. This way of living takes away from his focus on the field, although it seems to have been somewhat addressed, as you no longer pick up a paper to read about his antics the way you have in the past.

Another aspect of Balotelli's growing up that has shaped that player he has become is the incredible pressure he has been placed under since he was a 17-year-old. He made his Inter Milan debut in December of 2007, and, over the next couple of years, set the world of Italian football alight with some scintillating displays and some fantastic goals.

Comparisons to Ronaldo—the Brazilian, not the dancer—and Thierry Henry were made, and talk of him being the future of the Italian National team commenced. Balotelli was under scrutiny every time he took the field.

While players in other countries have faced similar hype and been the subject of similar expectations, few have had to deal with it under the glare of the Italian media spotlight. Players in Italy tend to be subjected to higher levels of criticism than anywhere else, and it can have a detrimental effect on a youngster.

A prime example of that is Antonio Cassano. Once seen as the future of Italian football, he is now a case of what-might-have-been. Cassano is an incredibly talented player but he struggled with the expectations and has failed to fulfill his full potential.

Balotelli could possibly go the same way if he's not handled properly. Roberto Mancini handled him well in Italy and has, at times, gotten good performances from him at Manchester City. His performance in the FA Cup final against Stoke was arguably his best for the club, as he put in a selfless display and worked hard for City on the left wing. Balotelli was rewarded for his performances by being named Man of The Match.

His goalscoring record of 12 in 31 games for City is impressive considering how often he's come off the bench. He grabbed an important goal against Everton, albeit with the aid of a deflection and also showed a positive attitude with a couple of good runs and some good link-up play. 

Unfortunately, there has been as much, if not more, bad than good from Balotelli. The most talked about example of his ridiculous side came with a failed backheel against the LA Galaxy in a preseason friendly.

Throughout Balotelli's career, it has always been the case that when he's good he's great and when he's bad, he can be downright awful. This video shows the best and worst of his time at Inter.

If Mancini can utilize him properly, I think he can play a huge role for City this season as an impact player off the bench. He has everything a striker needs to become world class, except the focus and level head. If he works on those two aspects of his personality, then City will reap the rewards of his wonderful footballing ability.

I believe City have the best first 11 in the Premier League, as well as the best squad. It's the squad that's important in a title challenge and City are going to need their bench players to perform when called upon. 

Adam Johnson, Carlos Tevez and James Milner are proven and reliable options for Mancini. He knows that if he calls on any of them, they tend to deliver the goods more often than not. Balotelli is his wild card. When he calls on Balotelli he's not sure if he's going to get a sublime performance or something straight out of the Jim Rose Circus.

When Manchester United won the title in May, a large part of it was down to the X-Factor brought to their team by a largely unknown striker we now know all to well as Chicharito. Everyone knows who Balotelli is, but not many people expect too much from him.

If he can defy his critics and let his football do the talking, Balotelli can be City's X-Factor and could play a huge role in helping City win their first ever Premier League title and their first championship since 1967-68. If he does that, then he can start to live up to his billing and a true star could be born.