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.

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