PURISTS, for your viewing pleasure tomorrow night we can offer the subtle artistry of Robinho. Perhaps you prefer the more immediate goal threat of Alessandro Mati, Giampaolo Pazzini and ‘The Pharaoh’ Stephan El Shaarawy.
Ultimately, we acknowledge that the majority of you are probably only tuning in to see our circus act.
In that case, Mario Balotelli is your man. AC Milan’s human volcano of a striker is the chief crowd-puller on the books of the Rossoneri these days, partly because he scores so many winning goals and partly because he is liable to undo any amount of his own good work with outbursts and fits of pique that most toddlers learn to shackle before they are old enough for school.
Still just 23, Balotelli is long enough out of short trousers to have worked out some rudimentary rights and wrongs, and his explanation for his temper is, as he memorably told a series of interviewers during his Manchester City days, that he is a misunderstood genius.
When his two goals knocked Germany out of last year’s European Championship finals, and he saw out the 90 minutes, it indicated progress. One day the striker from Palermo will mature and won’t be nearly as much fun to watch, unless, that is, he is playing for a team that you support, manage or own. But until that onset of control he will surely be a player who damages opponents with his goals but then, not always wisely but always voluntarily, brightens their outlook with his chaotic acts of self-harm.
Mikael Lustig, Celtic’s Swedish defender, had his first and only direct experience of Balotelli during the finals of the Uefa Under-21 European Championship in 2009. It was a group game in Helsingborgs won 2-1 by Italy, thanks to and in spite of their muscular maverick up front.
“We didn’t see too much of Balotelli in the first minutes of the game but then he took a great touch and buried it in the top corner of our net,” recalled Lustig yesterday as he looked forward to tomorrow night’s San Siro reunion.
“It was a really wonderful goal but then seven minutes before the break he took a kick out at our guy (Pontus Wernbloom) and he got a red card.”
The main impression left on a young Lustig that day was of a player destined for the top, not for the fate of other powderkeg merchants who never did figure out how to count to 10 and became unmanageable.
“It was obvious then that he’s a world-class player, but when you see him now I think he is even more mature than he was back then,” added Lustig. “He’s got everything to be a world-class player. When I see him this year I think he has become more mature and more of a team player. We will need to watch him closely as he’s a real good player. He’s the big star. But they’ve got other good players as well.”
If that was the greatest understatement to come out of Lustig’s mouth at Lennoxtown yesterday, there was another utterance of fact so obvious that it did not have to be verbalised. It was that Celtic are as relieved as they are proud to be in the group stages of this season’s Champions League. More gratitude has been heaped on their shoulders than pressure since their remarkable comeback to knock out Shakhter Karagandy, especially since the draw left them in such celebrated company, and Neil Lennon’s job is safer than any position on the Celtic payroll since Martin O’Neill knocked Rangers off their perch and Blackburn and Liverpool out of Europe.
Lustig commended his manager for his sensitivity yesterday, which adds to the impression that Lennon has completed a maturity over the past decade in a manner that Balotelli’s advisers might point to by way of example.
“He is really good when he talks to us. A lot of us are young lads and all the players know exactly what to do,” said Lustig of his manager’s team talks on the big European nights. “It’s really important to try to score the first goal in European games away from home. That gives you something to then defend your own goal.
“When he speaks to you in the minutes before the game he is very passionate. But he knows we are still young, so he never screams at us or anything like that. We know we are the underdogs but the way we go and play against the big teams, we show respect for them – but we don’t show respect on the pitch.”
With the little teams – Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Kazakhstan’s finest – and the heavy expectations out of the way, Lustig did not try to hide his satisfaction that Celtic can now enjoy the limelight for six games without the kind of pressure that will burden Massimiliano Allegri in Milan.
“Last year was unbelievable,” he recalled. “Of course we are underdogs like last year but there are going to be some massive games. Especially when we are playing at Celtic Park, we know we can beat any team. Last year was the same. We are not going to be happy to play some decent football but go back to Glasgow with zero points.
“The pressure is on Milan,” he added without fear of contradiction. “If they don’t manage to take three points they are going to look on it as a massive failure.
“But we have everything to win and it’s quite nice to have it that way.”