MANCHESTER // Sent from the training ground 48 hours earlier, Mario Balotelli was sent on to the pitch yesterday.
After a four-week hiatus and a virus, after controversy and character assassinations, his Manchester City career resumed. Balotelli being Balotelli, it was eventful.
But, while a blend of cheers and jeers greeted him, it was otherwise an encouraging occasion.
Balotelli's capacity to dominate the headlines has been proved again this week, after his scuffle with Roberto Mancini in training, but as City advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup in comfortable fashion, he was the support act.
His principal contribution was to enable an unknown teenager to enjoy a fairy tale debut.
Eight days after his 17th birthday, the Brazil-born Portugal youth international Marcos Lopes slotted in the rebound after Jonathan Bond parried Balotelli's shot.
It rounded off a City victory that had been earned before Balotelli's introduction in the final 20 minutes.
Carlos Tevez got the opener and Gareth Barry the second as Watford were overcome.
Thereafter, the substitute had a shot parried and headed wide; his tally for a stop-start season remains on three goals but, thanks to Lopes, City had a third.
"He's got a big smile on his face at the moment," said first-team coach David Platt. "He came away with us in pre-season and did really well.
"He has got great technical ability and wants to hurt the opposition. He has got a good future."
Whether Balotelli has one at the Etihad Stadium remains to be seen. Mancini had said he was prepared to offer City's resident wild child another 100 chances and the first came 48 hours after his training-ground clash with the manager.
Not all of the City supporters seem to share Mancini's faith: Balotelli was afforded a mixed reception while the Watford fans, seeing the striker and the manager together, enjoyed themselves with a chant of: "Fight, fight."
A second, later meeting of Balotelli and an Italian striking great was more instructive.
Gianfranco Zola had a lengthy conversation with the 22 year old after the final whistle.
"I have an affection for him," said the Watford manager.
"I worked with him for the [Italy] Under 21s and I do care about him. I hope his potential comes true. When he came on he caused us so many problems. You just need to understand how to master his potential."
The key, he said, as Mancini has done before him, lies with Balotelli himself.
"What I am talking about is himself, what he can do to improve his situation," Zola added. "I am only concerned that a young [player], with a lot of potential like him can shine."
Before Balotelli's arrival, another of City's controversial strikers did. Tevez was playing his first FA Cup tie since captaining City to victory in the 2011 final and, after Vincent Kompany had a goal disallowed, he set City on their way.
Having been chopped down by John Eustace, Tevez scored it with a piledriver of a free kick to end a personal drought.
The goals have dried up for the Argentine after a prolific start to the season. Penalties apart, this was just a third strike in 23 games.
While City had applied plenty of pressure to take the lead, they almost lost it immediately.
Fernando Forrestieri was afforded a clear run on goal to sprint on to Matej Vydra's pass and Joe Hart's deputy, Costel Pantilimon, was required to make an excellent save.
"If that had gone in then you never know which way it was going to go," Platt said.
It was a warning, and City did not require another.
They regained their ascendancy and extended their lead.
Gareth Barry scored his second goal in three home games after David Silva and Milner combined on the left flank.
"That really took the stuffing out of it," Platt added.
A second half followed where Milner, Tevez and Balotelli could, and perhaps should, have added to City's lead while Zola's Championship-side played some pleasing passing and created several chances.
"They deserved to win but during the game you could not spot a big difference," said the former Chelsea favourite.
These are two Italians with a fondness for the FA Cup, which Zola won as player in 1997 and 2000 and Mancini as a manager in 2011, and Balotelli was man of the match in the final.
He remains a talent that Mancini is reluctant to discard.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE