James Lawton: Mancini has raised the stakes in the greatest gamble in football history

City would seem to need the highly combustible nature of Balotelli about as much as a recovering alcoholic needs total immersion in a still of single malt whisky

If Mario Balotelli achieves nothing else in his brief but so far tumultuous career it may well be said of him that he concentrated the mind of English football on a single debate. The issue: have Manchester City and their Middle Eastern ownership simply gone crazy?

Some of the immediate speculation surrounding Balotelli's unveiling yesterday will concern the sincerity of Carlo Ancelotti's declaration that football's ultimate arrivistes have made themselves instant title challengers with the signing of a strikingly talented but emotionally unstable, 20-year-old.

He is, after all, a player about whom a majority of Internazionale supporters, and former coach Jose Mourinho, came to the swift conclusion that he was not so much bad as, well, at least a touch mad.

But there is a more intriguing question. It asks if what is happening in east Manchester is not so much transfer business as the most bizarre football satire.

Or, indeed, has Robert Mancini, a three-times winner of the Scudetto, put himself in the middle of the most perverse gamble in the history of the game?

Naturally, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was keen to fuel such speculation yesterday when, while introducing his rather more modest investments in the new season, he talked darkly of "kamikaze" owners throwing around their money in an ever-increasing frenzy.

One thing is certain. If the City coach had scoured every corner of world football in pursuit of the player least likely to fit smoothly into the requirements of a club whose paramount need is some ready-made dressing-room stability, he could not have found a better-rounded candidate than the one who threw down the famous black-and-blue jersey of Inter at the very threshold of their Champions League triumph last spring.

This is not to demonise a gifted young player who scored 20 goals in 59 appearances, a strike rate Mancini can reasonably expect to improve sharply with exposure to the parody of defensive technique now in such vogue in the Premier League. It is to say City would seem to need the highly combustible nature of Balotelli at this point in their history about as much as a recovering alcoholic needs total immersion in a still of single malt whisky.

Mancini's huge challenge is to create in one season clear evidence that it is possible, on the basis of instant wealth, to leap from deeply entrenched mediocrity to genuine distinction and enduring success.

It has never been done before, of course; Claudio Ranieri, the amiable Tinkerman, had his spending spree before Jose Mourinho arrived to provide Chelsea with the underpinnings of significant development, largely by identifying the players who would wield most influence with a permanent presence in a swiftly evolving team. Ferguson came close to the sack before adding the maverick genius of Eric Cantona to the emerging force of young players like Scholes, Giggs and Beckham. We all know the agonies experienced by Real Madrid in their cyclical splurges.

Last season was supposed to be the point of lift-off for City after their embarrassing failure to sign Kaka and the folly of investing in the unvarnished mercenary Robinho. Now we have the second wave which, in order to save Mancini's regime, has the basic ambition of bursting into the Champions League, a goal that, despite the summer spending, hardly seemed to have gathered much pace at White Hart Lane last weekend.

It is against this background that the signing of Balotelli seems laden with such an extraordinary level of risk, and which persuaded some that Ancelotti, who, while coach of Milan, saw close up the meanderings of the youngster's nature, was being more mischievous than supportive when enthusing over Mancini's first overtures to Inter.

With Craig Bellamy en route to hometown Cardiff, where the fatted calf may have to be placed prudently behind a defensive perimeter, and Stephen Ireland, a talented player but one whose eccentricities have been known to rival those of Balotelli, earmarked for exile to Aston Villa, you might have thought Mancini's burning priority was a dressing room united in its understanding that the concept of a united team has never been more vital to both the club and individual careers.

However, his move for Balotelli suggests more a willingness to brave the headstrong behaviour that saw his predecessor Mark Hughes immersed in the Emmanuel Adebayor controversy over his emotional outburst against Arsenal supporters and an apparently endless battle to impose the sense of a team. Mancini has already had his distracting rifts with Bellamy and Carlos Tevez, who made clear his displeasure with Mancini's training demands.

Perhaps the coach believes that he can become a father figure again to the young player he left in the not always tender care of Mourinho, who on several occasions publicly expressed his dismay at some of the prodigy's attitudes.

"As far as I'm concerned," said Mourinho, "a young boy like him cannot allow himself to train less than people like Figo, Cordoba and Zanetti."

Yet if Balotelli can be impulsive, and provocative – wearing a Milan shirt in the street while playing for Inter was one inflammatory gesture – he can also play the guileless innocent to some effect. After the shirt- throwing incident, he announced, "I am sorry for the situation that has been created. I'm the first person to suffer because I adore football and I want to play and now I'm waiting in silence so I can return to being useful to my team. I want to put my past behind me, look to the future and concentrate on upcoming commitments."

Such promises, and frequent eruptions of flair and power at set pieces, left may Inter fans unsure about whether to mark his departure with tears or relief. One of them said: "Don't ask me how I feel about Super Mario leaving us. I don't know. Sometimes I love him, sometimes I hate him."

Roberto Mancini is no doubt hoping for a more consistent response to the value of his latest signing – both on the terraces and back in the Middle East. Depending on that reaction, we will know soon enough whether Mancini has achieved a masterstroke – or, as Ferguson suggests, an act of hara-kiri.

Comments