x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Mancini's defence of striker Balotelli can be damaging

The performance of Mario Balotelli has been baffling and an intriguing love-hate relationship with the manager. Should City get rid of Balotelli? Vote in our poll

Manchester City's Mario Balotelli was substituted in the 52nd minute of the derby.
Manchester City's Mario Balotelli was substituted in the 52nd minute of the derby.

It was the best part of an hour after Robin van Persie's stoppage-time Manchester derby decider that Roberto Mancini was confronted by a barrage of questions about a rather different striker.

He responded with a cautionary tale for Mario Balotelli, of a player he once knew with "fantastic quality" who "did nothing" with his ability. Mancini did not name the man who squandered his potential.

Perhaps, even if he had, it would have meant little to his audience. This wastrel, it was implied, is a mere footnote in footballing history, a talent that was never realised because of his own failings.

It was the latest in a list of warnings for Balotelli and part of a broader theme in Mancini's thinking.

That his fellow Italian must learn lessons before it is too late. That his lifestyle off the pitch and work rate and decision-making on it must be rather better. That Manchester City's great enigma should listen to the sage advice of wiser heads.

Balotelli, Mancini inferred, had let himself down in Sunday's defeat to Manchester United. Others would phrase it differently: the striker had let down his manager, and his greatest champion.

Still more take a third view, that Mancini was at fault for selecting Balotelli to begin with. The forward has become a lightning rod for criticism of Mancini. He is, the coach's detractors argue, a liability, more trouble than he is worth.

But there is a problem with such simplistic dismissals of Balotelli. They are wrong.

Even as Mancini bluntly condemned Balotelli, the mind rewound to another Manchester media theatre after another derby. Thirteen months earlier, at Old Trafford, Balotelli was the destroyer in chief of United, scoring the first two goals in City's historic 6-1 win.

Jonny Evans, unable to cope with the marauding Italian, was sent off. Afterwards, Mancini suggested Balotelli had the ability to rank alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world's best player.

Yet that was not the only subject discussed. Balotelli had warmed up for the match by contriving to set off fireworks in his bathroom, rendering his house uninhabitable.

"I do not know what happened," Mancini said with a smile, as City savoured his glorious eccentricities. "But I know he now lives in a hotel."

The question Balotelli asked on a T-shirt that day - "Why Always Me?" - has been posed time and again since, sometimes in admiration, but often in condemnation.

Yet, though the decision backfired, there was a logic to selecting Balotelli against United.

The same central-defensive partnership he tormented in October 2011, Rio Ferdinand and Evans, were his immediate opponents. No other City striker has his blend of attributes, the physical and the technical, the pace, power and footballing gifts.

Very few in the world do.

And while there is always a risk involved, there can be a reward, too. Balotelli ended Germany's hopes of winning Euro 2012 with a one-man demolition job in the semi-final for Italy.

He provided the pass for Sergio Aguero to score the title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers in May. He was man of the match in the 2011 FA Cup final as City ended their 35-year wait for silverware.

For every example of Super Mario, of course, there is one of Blooper Mario, the twin halves of a schizophrenic personality. Sometimes both are evident within the space of a few minutes.

A victory over Tottenham Hotspur in January was secured by a typically cool injury-time penalty from Balotelli, shortly after a stamp on Scott Parker that led to a four-match ban. It is one of the many paradoxes of Balotelli that he can remain so calm when taking pressure penalties yet lose his temper so needlessly in other situations.

That a complex character can be both huge help and complete hindrance - April's defeat at Arsenal, when he was a red card waiting to happen, is a case in point - explains why Pablo Zabaleta said last week: "Sometimes you want to kill him."

A capacity for anger is mixed with an ability to amuse. Balotelli's antics, from driving into a women's prison for a look around to turning his garden into a racetrack for quad bikes, mean Mancini often uses him to lighten the mood.

When meeting Dave Brailsford, the performance director of the hugely successful British cycling team, and told of the riders' use of sports psychologists, Mancini quipped that two would be required to treat Balotelli and then a further two would be needed to counsel the traumatised doctors.

Much of his rhetoric, from the comic to the critical, is devoted to Balotelli. But if Mancini often grants him more leeway than the solid citizens in the City squad, he also holds Balotelli to higher standards than most others. It is why his frustration with his wayward protege becomes so evident.

A player who Mancini said can be in the world's top three is often only City's fourth-choice striker.

The manager claimed he was "finished" with Balotelli after his April dismissal against Arsenal. He was not.

While many suggest he exited the last-chance saloon when hauled off against United, that is an overreaction. Balotelli is too talented to discard. The proof lies in a Manchester derby. Just not Sunday's.


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