PARIS >> Striker Mario Balotelli will grab headlines for the right reasons after scoring with a penalty and a header on his Nice debut in an entertaining 3-2 home win against Marseille on Sunday.
He took just seven minutes to score his first goal in France, the latest stop in a career dominated more in recent years by off-field antics than goals. Late on, he cleverly found space to nod home from close range in the 78th as Nice moved level on points with Monaco at the top.
Balotelli has a reputation as a surly player but was all smiles after the final whistle. He hugged teammates, shared a joke with match officials and led celebrations with the fans.
He was so relaxed that he was face down on the massage table when given the man-of-the-match award by TV broadcaster Canal Plus.
"It's perfect," Balotelli said in English, before trying his luck in decent French. "I am very happy, thanks. Now ... massage."
In just one game, he scored as many league goals as the two previous seasons combined. The 26-year-old Italian had not scored a league goal since netting for AC Milan on Sept. 22 last year.
Despite not being fully fit, he looked sharp all game, almost setting up teammate Alassane Plea with some impressive skill down the left on the hour mark — only for Plea to head wide.
The match was dominated by players with a point to prove after difficult recent experiences in the English Premier League.
Marseille's equalizer came from former Newcastle winger Florian Thauvin with a fine shot into the top corner in the 14th. The visitors took the lead in the 73rd thanks to a firm penalty from striker Bafetimbi Gomis, who joined Marseille after two inconsistent seasons with Swansea.
Midfielder Wylan Cyprien won the game late on with a powerful 20-meter strike after latching onto Younes Belhanda's superb back heel.
But it was all about Balotelli.
He joined Nice in the summer on a free transfer after leaving Liverpool — and this is by far his smallest club in a career that saw him grab early headlines as a 17-year-old for Inter Milan. The one-time Manchester City striker, who still talks of himself as a future Golden Ball winner, joined Liverpool two years ago as a replacement for Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez.
He managed only one goal in 16 league games in England, prompting Liverpool to loan him to Milan last season — where he scored 1 in 20.
But just like he did with Inter and City, he scored on his club debut.
After the penalty was given, Balotelli stepped up confidently with Gomis rushing up to him, shouting and clapping his hands in a bid to put him off. Unruffled, Balotelli glared at Gomis and then focused himself again before slotting into the bottom left corner.
Moments before the goal, he had just failed to reach Plea's cross from the right.
Thauvin, who started only three league games for Newcastle last season, missed another good chance in a frantic first half where Balotelli had two other shots saved.
If this is what Balotelli is like when only half fit, then Nice fans are in for a treat when he hits peak form.
"I'm actually a little bit pleased for him," Gomis said. "The French league needs players like him."