James Lawton: Mancini is losing his battle for the heart and mind of £24m Italian

How does City manager Roberto Mancini get to grips with justifying his £24m gamble on Mario Balotelli? The odds against it looked formidable yesterday
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No doubt Manchester City's manager Roberto Mancini had some reasons to celebrate the possibility of new levels of fluency and dynamism in his expensive but still unproven attacking force.

They hinged on the one-two combination with which Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko condemned a brave and at one point menacing Notts County to the sword. But if the Argentine's intervention after an hour brought familiar bite and a sharply improved level of cohesion when linking with the big Bosnian, he also turned a spotlight on a problem that is surely beginning to haunt City's manager.

How on earth does he get to grips with the challenge of justifying his £24m gamble on Mario Balotelli?

Of course Mancini has already made a bold and, some would say, enlightened case for the project.

At Internazionale he saw the wonderful gifts of the young contender. He saw great power and touch and if Balotelli's nature was turbulent and erratic, if his demons sometimes went on the rampage, he knew a reclamation job might just produce brilliant results.

Balotelli had, after all, a difficult upbringing and a deep conflict of emotions when his natural parents, African immigrants, who had agreed to his adoption by an Italian family, attempted to reclaim their parentage. Balotelli talked of "opportunism" in the wake of his success as a footballer. He also had to deal with some of the worst of the racism endemic in northern Italy.

But Mancini could work his way through such problems. He knew the boy and he knew his worth.

He would take the odds and beat them. Unfortunately those odds looked ever more formidable yesterday, and if you were in any doubt about this you only had to look into the expressions of Mancini and his old pro assistant Brian Kidd when Balotelli hurled down his snood and marched off into the tunnel after his replacement in a game which he had barely brushed against.

Except, that is, when he earned a yellow card for an ugly and gratuitous foul on one of County's more creative players, Alan Gow. That was depressing enough, but even more worrying was the demeanour of a player who at 20 insists that he adores the game.

He looked angry, embittered and dislocated – a condition that had developed long before he turned in the box and accidentally collided with defender Krystian Pearce. That may have given him a sore head but the biggest worry had to be his spirit.

That the Balotelli exercise is in some crisis is plain enough, not least by the scant requirement to read between the lines in a pre-match statement by Kidd. He said: "Mario has had a wee injury problem but it appears everything is sorted out. He's another great talent. I think we have a really great squad, no doubt about it.

"Carlos has always stepped up to the plate and he's a fantastic player. But if you go through the clubs who have been successful, invariably they have four strikers who will be competing for places." Translation: Balotelli, who has already talked of returning to Italy while at the same time expressing the mutual affection he has for Manchester, and especially with those fellow apartment dwellers apparently charmed by his habit of launching fireworks from the building's ninth floor, had better get a little more serious about the challenge he faces, and considerably more equable, in the near future.

City will surely see the summer as another opportunity to both clear out and augment their current squad and yesterday at least it was not hard to guess that Balotelli's place is again a matter for some debate.

Mancini, like any man who has made a commitment, and challenged his own ability to succeed in drawing the best out of a player of unquestionably sweet and formidable ability, will certainly be reluctant to accept defeat. But maybe the die is already cast.

This was Balotelli back in Milan after he had been suspended for indiscipline and provocative behaviour, including appearing on a high-profile Italian news show wearing the red and black of rivals Milan: "I am sorry for the situation that has been created recently. I am 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 for my team.

"I want to put the past behind me and look to the future and concentrate on upcoming commitments. I want to make myself ready."

Around about that time his then coach, Jose Mourinho, declared that in one match Balotelli had come close to a "zero rating" and added: "As far as I'm concerned a young boy cannot allow himself to train less than [Luis] Figo, [Ivan] Cordoba and [Javier] Zanetti." It was a withering verdict by a man famous for winning the affection of his dressing room – and turning it into a potent resource.

So far Mancini, whatever his other virtues, is still in search of such a source of strength and yesterday his expression, as Balotelli left the field, suggested he might just have been given another insight into quite what Mourinho had been saying.

Yet, who knows, City may be on their way now. The FA Cup is probably not what Mancini had in mind when he said that only silverware would truly strengthen the team mentality, but with Villa and the winners of Everton v Reading having to come to the City of Manchester Stadium the old bauble might prove the catalyst he craves.

For quite some time yesterday County's second attempt to undermine the plutocrats made City's late authority seem like a remote possibility indeed; almost, you have to say, as long a shot as a smile appearing on the face of the young man who says he is still in love with football. We know that love hurts, but this was ridiculous.