James Lawton: Balotelli may just be beginning to vindicate gamble on volatile talent
This latest evidence certainly increases the possibility that one day Mancini will be able to say that Mario Balotelli was indeed worth all of the trouble
Monday 16 May 2011
It may not have been universally noted but Mario Balotelli did hint at one perilous moment. He got hold of a giant model banana and appeared to be toying with a rather blunt expression of Manchester City's new and maybe historic virility.
But then, it was confirmed quickly enough, this was indeed a time, however fleeting, when all of his demons had been gathered together and whipped into submission.
As his team captured what might prove to be the first day of the rest of their lives, it was as though he too was drawing a line in some rather seriously scuffed sand. What he found in the desert of quite a lot of his past may just have been a strangely compelling power to re-shape it.
It was, like so much of Balotelli's virtuoso performance, an example of exquisite timing.
We already had copious evidence that he could be bad, or at least ungovernably eccentric, but what we didn't have any reason to know was that he could also be so very good in such a sustained and disciplined way.
Certainly his post-match assertion that he had made a conscious effort to be part of the team, rather than an alien presence beamed down from who knew quite where, had been underpinned in the only place that matters – out on the field.
You could make a labyrinthine library out of the good intentions of vastly rewarded footballers. Here, though, was the eloquence of authentic action, of what looked like a conscious effort to set for himself new standards of discipline and commitment.
One consequence which may well prove influential in City's continued progress is that he may just have given himself the challenge of living down a good name.
Such a suspicion was certainly encouraged by the sight of him abandoning a lone dash from the presentation stand, which alerted some security men, in favour of jumping up and down with his triumphant team-mates. It was, in the circumstances he had done so much to create, a much more appropriate reflection of his remarkably well-ordered contribution to his club's first trophy win in 35 years.
Balotelli the team player is not a concept that has grown seamlessly since his arrival from Internazionale and no doubt it will take more than one outstandingly rounded performance to reassure his manager and patron Roberto Mancini that he can create moorings strong enough to secure the long-term effectiveness of a loose but impressively charged cannon. Yet who can dismiss the possibility that, on such a pivotal day in his attempt to re-make the richest football club in the world, Mancini received a massive transfusion of a manager's lifeblood – the potentially sweet vindication of a seriously big gamble.
It came with irrefutable evidence that if nine out of 10 managers, with Jose Mourinho, no less, the loudest of the majority, would have turned their backs on Balotelli and his bizarre and troubling accumulation of baggage, Mancini may just find huge reward in taking such a calculated risk.
This latest evidence certainly increases the possibility that one day he will able to say that Balotelli was indeed worth all of the trouble.
Indeed, the proposition might have been passed by a show of hands if Stoke City's splendid goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen had not so brilliantly turned away a shot of sumptuous power and control in the first half.
As it was, Yaya Touré was again the history man, the enforcer of City's revised destiny, but in the moment of breakthrough Balotelli was again bitingly relevant. Earlier he had taken a shot in the face from Robert Huth that could easily have earned a red card but his reaction involved no more than brief and routine theatrics.
Without Balotelli the Cup final which was supposed to stand on its own as a reannouncement of its important place in the diary of English football would have been doomed to the deepest and most depressing mediocrity.
This was the threatened cost of Stoke's total failure to produce the best of themselves in their effort to end a drought that had gone four years longer than City's. But for Sorensen's spirit and technique, and Jermaine Pennant's despairing application, Stoke might have raised the white flag somewhere along the southbound lanes of the M6.
Fortunately for City, and the spectacle, Touré seized his moment with the power and the certainty that marked his winner against Manchester United in the semi-final and it helped that whenever Balotelli touched the ball there were new and striking possibilities.
It meant that the symbolism of City's joy inevitably outweighed the meaning of their winning performance.
They were winners rather than mere applicants for glory at the gates of Europe and wherever you turned in the stadium there was the sense that Manchester United's noisy neighbours had something to say that could no longer be so lightly dismissed.
However, this did nothing to scale down the priorities now facing Mancini. Balotelli's performance was immensely encouraging but still no more than a down payment into a reliability fund and if Carlos Tevez's talent is something you can take to the bank his commitment to the club's future is plainly not.
The talk is of three major signings along with a significant clear-out, which you may say is pretty much par for the course of such a huge work in progress. This, though, does not lessen the pressure on Mancini to make moves aimed not only at augmenting the talent base but also enhancing the team's understanding of what it takes to gain football's highest ground.
Touré, on both his visits to the national stadium in a few weeks, has shown he has both the nerve and the mettle. Nigel de Jong and Joe Hart have displayed similar substance and from Balotelli there is at least the promise that he may just be able to keep his eyes fixed on the stars.
The City revolution will have to run a lot deeper than this, of course, but the point Balotelli might have made would have been somewhat gratuitous. Gaining Europe and the Cup in one season is confirmation enough. City have, no doubt, joined the big bananas.
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