The path from Milan to Manchester is a familiar one. Manager, senior player and now the pricey prospect have traded La Scala for the Ship Canal and the sight of Il Duomo for a view of the Pennines. Patrick Vieira made the journey in January, a month after Roberto Mancini's appointment by Manchester City. Mario Balotelli is the third Inter Milan alumnus to appear at Eastlands.
The multinational composition of the English top flight means many imports have lost their intrigue, but Balotelli is an exception. Inevitably dubbed "Super Mario", he could make his Premier League debut at Sunderland today. The Frenchman's earlier arrival created a stir. As Balotelli is now, Vieira represented an exotic unknown when he joined Arsenal in 1996. The intriguing ingénue left Milan - AC, not Inter - but went on to establish himself as one of the leading figures in English football. Emulating Vieira is no simple feat but Balotelli can study the older man at close quarters.
Vieira made his way in England by shielding the famously frugal defence George Graham bequeathed Arsene Wenger. Consisted entirely of experienced players, they formed part of Vieira's education. "The guys at Arsenal were fantastic for me," he said. "They showed me the way and I was a good listener. So I learned a lot being next to them." Now Vieira is the senior figure, charged with tutoring players like Balotelli.
"Players like myself, Nigel [de Jong], Vinnie [Kompany] and Kolo [Toure] have been in the league for quite a long time and know the league," he said. "We talk to them and make them comfortable." Vieira was scarcely a pauper in his time at Highbury, but the inflation in players' wages has altered perceptions of emerging footballers. City's newcomers, the former Arsenal captain insists, have not got too much, too soon.
"It is different, maybe because they are earning more than we used to," he said. "It is not just in the game, it is society. Here you have got young, talented players who listen and who want to learn." Balotelli's capacity to learn has been questioned. His former manager, Jose Mourinho, said the forward had "a single brain cell." Vieira would beg to differ. "He is young, he makes some mistakes and he learns from them. People around him have to help him as well, make him understand when he makes a mistake. Maybe in Italy he was in an environment where people didn't tell him when he was right and when he was wrong. Coming to England will make him grow up."
The £22.5 million (Dh128m) man scored and was booked on his debut in the Europa League against FC Timisoara 10 days ago. The strike could be the first of many, according to Vieira, who said: "If he shoots 10 times, he hits the targets nine times and will score seven goals. He is a goalscorer." Nevertheless, it was a way of suggesting an eventful stay in England. Indeed, the image of a wild child has followed Balotelli, tales of altercations with Mourinho and opponents, policemen and spectators being translated quicker from the Italian than details of his footballing exploits.
Vieira, however, believes youthful exuberance accounts for much of it."Don't believe all that people said about Balotelli," he said. "He loves the game. We know each other really well and he is a nice character, a lovely guy. He is a joker. All the young guys like to laugh and make a joke but of course with time, he will find out sometimes there is a line not to cross." The impression was that Balotelli had a tendency to accelerate as he neared the line, in Italy. In Manchester, however, he should prove more suited to Mancini's management than Mourinho's.
"It is an advantage for him because the manager knows him really well as a player and a person. I also know him," Vieira said. Along with the encouragement came a warning: that talent alone is not enough: "He has to work harder than he has been doing in the last few years when he was at Inter if he wants to improve, if he wants to be one of the best." Those are the club's ambitions and, Vieira believes, realistic ones.
Comparisons between Wenger's Arsenal and Mancini's City are instructive. While there are obvious differences - Wenger was a revolutionary in his methods and style of play but, by persevering with the rearguard he inherited, an evolutionary in terms of personnel, while City have undergone a greater overhaul of the playing staff. This is the first full season under each manager. A spell in London yielded three titles and four FA Cups and Vieira believes City could achieve similar success.
"From last year to this year, we have improved a lot because some quality players have come in," he said. "When everyone is fit, you can count on City to be there at the end. I really strongly believe that the club can go one step higher because of the quality of players. "I think we must win something for the club this season." They are words worth heeding, because Balotelli's teacher is a footballer with a PhD in winning.