Mario Balotelli: an eternal love affair

Aggressive, petulant, stubborn, uncouth; it's quite fair to say that Mario Balotelli doesn't enjoy the best relationship with the British media. Caricatured as an uncontrollable young man lacking the requisite skills of respect and decency, Balotelli is treated like a caged animal as journalists, opponents and fans prod him with sticks before running for cover, hoping they've provoked a reaction.

The self-righteous shake their heads at his every action, labelling him as the antithesis of all that is wrong with The Modern Game. But this blog thinks it's time that someone stood up for Super Mario, and saluted his actions rather than chastising them.

Football - despite what Bill Shankly might tell you - is just game. Part of the entertainment industry and designed to interest those who pay for a ticket to a game. It is nothing more. But too often this beautiful simplicity is lost in a wave of angst and violence amongst those who forget that essentially, it's 22 men and a pig's bladder.

With the vast majority of footballers trained in the art of providing the media with tiresome cliches, surely any player who divides opinion with their behaviour and gives us something to talk about is worthy of praise? After all, isn't one of any footballers primary objectives to simply entertain?

Balotelli perplexes and infuriates in equal measure. The excuses offered up for his behaviour range from his difficult childhood - being abandoned by his birth mother as a newborn - to the abhorrant rascist abuse he suffered so regualrly whilst playing in Italy. While these factors undoubtedly contributed to his cold and often hostile persona, there's no need to over-analyse or attempt to explain the Italian: he's an entertainer, like Prince or Robert De Niro.

We all watch the game for its tapestry of different characters with their varying levels of ability, and it's this personalisation that makes football what it is. Can a sport devoid of personalities still be enjoybale? Imagine if all professional footballers were as straight-laced as Aaron Hughes or Peter Beardsley? The game would instantly lose its attraction.

Continuing the long line of erratic geniuses that includes Maradon, Cantona and Di Canio, Balotelli is just another player who's erratic temperament has contributed to their incredible footballing talent. However, perhaps because he hasn't produced consitently excellent performances for Manchester City, Balotelli is not held in quite the same esteem as his fellow nutters. Still, at only 20-years-old, there's plenty of time.

He's arrogant, egotistical and can't dress himself, but so what? Mario Balotelli is an entertainer. And long may his mentalness continue.



Nearly a Decade in the Sun

For nine years they had been trying and failing. Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't do it. Rafa Benitez couldn't do it. Harry Redknapp couldn't do it. Cesare Prandelli couldn't do it. Nor could Leonardo, Claudio Ranieri or Roberto Donadoni. Not even Big Sam could do it.

In total, 107 coaches tried to beat a Jose Mourinho team at home. On Saturday evening, Manolo Preciado did it.

Preciado: the man with the greatest moustache in football (apart from Warren Gass of course,) became the first man since Antonio Sousa to beat Mourinho on home soil. And only the second ever. Nine years, one month and 10 days the record had lasted. Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid had not lost in 150 games under the Portuguese maestro. He'd not been defeated in a home league game since 23 February 2002, when nine-man Porto lost 3-2 to Biera-Mar. 150 matches, 125 wins and 25 draws. 342 goals scored, 87 conceded. And then the record goes against Sporting Gijon!

Sporting Gijon, a team who hadn't beaten Madrid at the Bernabeau for 16 years; a team who went into the weekend's game three points above the relegation zone; a team who's best player is Nacho Novo, finally became the team to end Mourinho's unbelievable record.

It had to be a formality, surely? The start to a perfect weekend: Madrid wold beat Sporting and Barcelona would lose away to Villareal, their hardest game remaining this season. Suddenly, the gap would be down to two points with El Clasico to come later this month. Game on.

Or maybe not. It was at the exact moment when Madrid fans starting muttering and whistling at a game that had become bone-achingly dull, that Sporting scored. A wonderful move down the left-hand side; a clever dummy; a wonderful pass; a beautiful finish from Miguel de las Cuevas.

Before the game, Mourinho had insisted that one more loss and Los Blancos' title challenge would be over. At 1-0 down, Madrid launched themselves forward. Unfortunately for them, they came across Juan Pablo in the Sporting goal, who as AS put it "was an orange octopus with a thousand hands." They had 13 shots to Sporting's one. They had a goal disallowed and a penalty shout turned down. They also had a plethora of key players missing: Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Marcelo and Ronaldo. and yet you couldn't say the were robbed. Sporting's goal was an eight-pass move. No fluke.

Time and again, Madrid launched diagonal balls towards the head of Adebayor. Marca's match report even likened them to Stoke. And time and again it was predictable. Madrid are a side built to counter-attack, but as the season has worn on, teams have worked that out: before they attacked Madrid, now they wait. Mourinho's side have now been beaten by Osasuna and Sporting, and have drawn with Mallorca, Deportivo and Levante. That's 14 dropped points against teams that are all lower than ninth.

As Mourinho said after the game: "If I wanted to draw 0-0, I could have." And anywhere else in Europe that would be fine. But as I've discussed here before, in Spain that is not an option given the ridiculous amount of points Barcelona are racking up.

Saturday's defeat was nine years in the waiting and had a devastating effect on Madrid's title challenge. As the final whistle went, Mourinho was off down the tunnel. Soon, however, there was a knock on the Sporting dressing-room door. As Preciado revealed: the Portuguese coach came in and congratulated all the players individually on their win. It was a touch of class after everything that had happened.

Earlier in the season, Preciado had called Mourinho "a scumbag" and suggested that the Madrid manager should be put in among Sporting's Ultras. They both got involved in a furious argument outside Sporting's ground after Madrid's 1-0 win earlier this season. And Mourinho then accused Preciado of throwing the game against Barcelona that Sporting only lost 1-0. It was petty, it was bitchy and it was getting very, very nasty.

It probably explains why, when the final whistle blew, Preciado ran on to the pitch with his arms in the air; players spraying him with water, as if they'd won the league. He was still dripping when he spoke to the media after the game, reminding the gathering journalists what he told Mourinho in November: "if you spit upwards, it always comes down eventually."

Nine years is an unfathomably long time to remain unbeaten at home. A record that will probably never be beaten again. But as Juanma Trueba put it: "Football is as capricious as a platinum blond and as merciless as the Mafioso that keeps her."