MANCHESTER // While Roberto Mancini ponders how to deal with his increasingly irritating enigma, Manchester City can console themselves with the thought that not all wingers are proving the bane of their manager's life.
Mario Balotelli's unpredictability means that the spotlight can remain focused on the young Italian, even when he is banished from the team. Yet with Adam Johnson returning to fitness and eager to make up for lost time, a natural replacement for Balotelli is available and, as befits a man with a solitary yellow card to his name all season, he benefits from a more equable temperament.
Mancini's decision not to consider Balotelli for the trip to Stamford Bridge is a consequence of the rashness that produced a red card in Thursday's Europa League exit to Dynamo Kiev.
Balotelli has apologised but Mancini's patience is rapidly running out with his gifted but self-destructive compatriot. When asked if the forward was repaying his trust, he replied bluntly: "No."
He believes that Balotelli, 20, needs to calm down, warning that otherwise his considerable talent will be squandered.
"It is time," he said. "It is time he started to think with his head, to use his brain, because if not it is very difficult for him. I speak with him every day. I know him very well; I know he can become one of the best players in Europe, but I think if he continues like this, it will be very difficult."
Johnson returned as a replacement on Thursday after seven weeks out with an ankle injury that initially threatened to curtail his season.
"That's the longest I've had [out injured]," he said. "I feel good, my fitness is fine, so it is just getting back to playing. I haven't done that much training so my touch might be a bit rusty. I'll give it a go if started, but I don't think I'll last 90 minutes." Neither, for different reasons, does Balotelli.
Mancini is accused of indulging Eastlands' enfant terrible. Johnson is adamant that, despite his manager's reputation as a disciplinarian with a fondness for safety-first tactics, he has been liberated at City and is granted a licence to thrill.
"There always has been," he said. "People just say Italians are defensive and everyone presumes [it is true]. But he gives me the freedom to play. I have more freedom here because it's up to us to attack. Teams are scared of us so that's nice, as a winger, getting the ball all the time. At Middlesbrough in relegation battles, the other team had it. It's nice to have the majority of the ball."
The England international, 23, is getting an education from an elegant master. "Training with and watching players like David Silva every day brings me on," he said.
If a debilitating fixture programme has taken its toll on City, who will play a 14th game in the space of 49 days, a refreshed Johnson returns with renewed optimism.
The "clash of the cash" may be presented as the unofficial battle for third place, but Johnson argues that neither Chelsea nor City are out of the title race. "Second is not too far off for either of the teams," he said.
"Two defeats for the two teams above us and two wins for ourselves and Chelsea and it's back on. Anything can happen."
The other side of the equation, however, is that neither is guaranteed a top-four finish.
"The Champions League is the minimum you expect," Johnson said. "It is a massive spot."
Chelsea and City is a meeting of like-minded souls that lends itself to intriguing match-ups. In one attack is Fernando Torres, who numbers Mancini among his admirers, and who continues his quest for a first goal since his £50 million (Dh298m) transfer. In the other, meanwhile, is Carlos Tevez, a scorer in each of City's three successive wins against the Londoners.
Charged with halting him, meanwhile, is John Terry, who Mark Hughes wanted to lure to Eastlands in 2009. If the Chelsea captain has nightmares, Tevez may figure prominently.
In Johnson's case, the individual match-up is against Ashley Cole, the England teammate he believes is the best left-back in the world.
"Any time you go to Stamford Bridge is tough," the winger said. Yet City won 4-2 there last season, a result that was suitably emphatic to encourage Johnson that a repeat is possible. "Last year we played them off the park and hopefully we can do that again," he said
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