Balotelli is the closest thing we have to a new Cantona
Man City striker is not just after United's title - he could emulate their greatest icon
MANCHESTER CITY have not yet dethroned Manchester United as the kings of English football, but in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public they appear to have unearthed a rough diamond in the mercurial and enigmatic Mario Balotelli.
Indeed the wayward and confusing Italian is starting to draw more and more comparisons with that other famous icon of Manchester football, Eric Cantona.
Balotelli has some way to go before he matches the exploits of the man who became known as 'Le God' in the red half of the city, but he exerts the same kind of fascination as the legendary United number seven.
Both men have been in the news this week. Cantona made headlines when he threatened to take on Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential election while, rather more prosaically, Mario Balotelli unexpectedly dropped in on a school in Manchester to go to the toilet, and ended up staying a while.
Over the last year Balotelli has rarely been out the news. He arrived in England with a bad reputation and was initially seen as a negative influence on his club and the league. But his madcap antics, including setting fire to his house with fireworks, have somehow won over the City faithful and other football fans, and he is now seen as the sort of eccentric always welcome on these shores.
His story is not dissimilar to that of Cantona, who moved to England after one too many controversies in France. In 1992 he made his way across the Pennines to Manchester from Leeds, a move that resulted in plenty of acrimony, and immediately inspired United to their first league title for 26 years. In his five seasons under Alex Ferguson he won the Premier League four times and the FA Cup twice.
Cantona was inspirational on the pitch and intriguing off it. His kung fu attack on a fan who abused him at Crystal Palace is probably the single most memorable moment in Premier League history. It also generated one of the greatest ever footballing quotes when he told a press conference: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
Dan Jones in The Evening Standard this week described Eric Cantona as a "a player-aesthete" who operated "at the point where sport and art intersect: at which the sportsman becomes a performance artist."
Balotelli may not yet be in quite the same league as Cantona but he is certainly making a case to be seen as his natural heir, and is one of the most charismatic players to have graced English pitches for some time.
Chelsea striker Didier Drogba compared the two last year, and during a discussion on BBC Radio 5 last month Sun columnist Ian McGarry likened the young Italian to the United legend. He recalled travelling to a City match earlier this season. "The talk among the fans was all about Balotelli," he said. "And I don't think they were all Manchester City fans either. It occurred to me that this is what it was like when Manchester United had Eric Cantona."
As Jones points out: "Balo combines the devil-may-care combustibility, the self-mythologising, and of course, the glorious talent that was Cantona's hallmark."
If he can perform at the necessary level on the field and prove that his actions off it amount to more than the empty posturing of a narcissist, like boxer Floyd Mayweather, then he could lay claim to being the new Cantona.