James Lawton: Balotelli: he's brilliant but is he worth the bust-ups?

 

The Reverend Mother may have been perplexed when she sang, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" but, as Roberto Mancini might now reasonably suggest, it could have been a whole lot worse. Imagine the panic if it had been Mario rather than Maria stalking the cloisters.

Of course, the imperatives of a convent and a high-powered football club are somewhat different but they probably do share one important priority.

It is cohesion, that ability to get along with a sense of shared commitment and purpose, and it is here that the latest eruption of Manchester City's superstar-cum-unguided missile must provoke his manager's deepest long-term fears.

By rooting out the destructive self-indulgence of Carlos Tevez, Mancini plainly scored a massive blow for the team ethos which has always defined the most successful clubs, whatever their player resources.

Yet, just when his Balotelli experiment was, on balance, providing a surplus of confidence that the player's extraordinary talent was indeed worth all the messy and bizarre baggage, there came this latest incident.

You may say Balotelli's confrontation with his team-mate Micah Richards this week was just another example of the former's erratic nature, another little tribulation for the intensely professional Mancini to balance against the kind of brilliance his protégé displayed at Stamford Bridge by scoring a goal of quite beautiful nerve and accomplishment.

Unfortunately, on this occasion there is a somewhat deeper implication. Balotelli might string all kinds of nonsensical behaviour together without drawing the charge made by Richards in his first burst of anger. Before brushing away the incident with a happy little tweet, Richards complained – to the point of physical violence – that Balotelli wasn't pulling his weight in a training session.

In a team gearing itself to hit new levels of achievement, which even in a group as talented as City's first-team squad requires some extremely well developed single-mindedness, this carries a trace of poison.

Missing curfews, defying other specific orders, behaving generally like a maladjusted adolescent, inevitably makes you answerable to the club manager. Not pulling your weight touches everyone while inviting on to yourself the toughest of questions.

In Balotelli's case this concerns his inclination on any given day. Is he performing for the team, is he seeking to add his formidable weight to the communal effort, or is he about to go down to the bottom of the garden and hang out once more with the little people?

He took the latter course recently at Anfield in a match of superb effort – at least until Balotelli appeared as one of the most seriously under-committed substitutes in the history of big-time football.

Ian St John, who grew up under the ferocious tutelage of Bill Shankly was staggered by what he saw. "It was a great match," he recalls, "and when Balotelli came on I was fascinated to know what he might bring to the action. I had seen some of him on television, was aware of what he had to offer, which made it all the more unbelievable when he collected two yellow cards and was off the field so quickly. You couldn't help thinking what Shankly would have made of it. It offended everything he believed in.

"He always said that you could bring all the gifts in the world to football but if you could never be relied upon, if your manager could never trust you to behave like a professional when the pressure was at its highest, none of it meant anything.

"You define yourself as a professional with everything you do on the field, how aware you are of the people around you, and however brilliant Balotelli is at times I don't think it will ever compensate for that lack of responsibility. It is something you have inside you – or not."

If the verdict is damning, it is surely not too far from the point at which Mancini angrily ordered Balotelli to the dressing room. The manager was not interested in any injustice that might have been inflicted by the referee. In that moment Mancini had no time at all for the agonies of a sorely tried mentor.

He had a hugely important match to save where before there was one to be won, a reversal created by the player in whom, against so much advice and to the astonishment of Jose Mourinho no less, he had invested so much of his own credibility.

Who knows? Mancini may yet be vindicated. It certainly didn't seem such a reach when Balotelli was drilling in two goals during the dismantling of Manchester United at Old Trafford – or folding his arms like some young war chief after displaying an especially imperious touch at the penalty spot.

The goal against Chelsea this week embodied the qualities that Mancini finds so compelling, as any admirer of the most refined talent would. But then a few days later he was obliged to step in between Balotelli and Richards, not to stop some riotous behaviour in the canteen or nightclub but out on the training pitch, the place where great performances and implicit respect between team-mates are supposed to be built, hour by hour, day by day.

And why? It was because Micah Richards believed that Mario Balotelli wasn't doing his work. This is different from all the goofy pranks. This goes to the heart of what a team should hold in common – and the dilemma of Roberto Mancini.

He loves the talent of Balotelli, and who can blame him? The problem is the price that both he and his team may one day have to pay.

Farrell keeps the spirit of Wilkinson and rugby alive

In the week of Jonny Wilkinson's departure from international rugby there was a quote that represented the essence of a superb career, one that could not have been more sadly betrayed by England's wholesale collapse of professionalism in the recent World Cup.

"For me," went the quote, "it's all about rugby. I don't get distracted by the other stuff. It's about actually playing the game and making myself better every day I come into training."

How easily those words would have slipped from Wilkinson. In fact they were uttered by Owen Farrell, the 20-year-old many of the rugby cognoscenti believe is Wilko's natural successor. He certainly has excellent genes as the son of the great rugby league player Andy. It is also hugely heartening, and surely it goes beyond the boundaries of rugby, to know he has the same gut-deep ambition that made not just a fine player but also a national treasure.

Wilkinson was maybe not the most naturally gifted rugby man we ever saw but he achieved the target that young Farrell has now set himself. He was never less than a player who demanded the best of himself. His genius was to care.

Drogba's worth more than his weight in gold

Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas may have touched on a potentially rich source of dressing-room morale when he moved so quickly to deny that a disgruntled Didier Drogba might soon be heading out of town.

That the great striker from the Ivory Coast has been required to battle over a two-year contract portrays a lack of style remarkable even by the club's desperate standards. Drogba has been a superb servant of Chelsea, and one still capable, as we have seen in recent matches, of quite extra-ordinary performances.

That he should be retained not just for what he has represented all these years, which is to say a ferocious talent of consistent achievement, but what he might offer in the difficult phase of transition would seem to make more than practical good sense.

It would convey appropriate respect for a player that Carlo Ancelotti, who knew a little of great performers, christened Superman. Certainly he is worth rather more than the cost of a few struts of the oligarch's latest super-yacht.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little