Manchester City have sent Mario Balotelli, whose persistent knee injury is a source of concern to Roberto Mancini, for two weeks in the United States under the care of the specialist who helped Jonny Wilkinson through his career-threatening injury.
Mancini, who has declared that the 20-year-old can become one of the world's great strikers, has put him in the care of the world-renowned Vermont-based Bill Knowles, who has also worked with Tiger Woods and several of Wilkinson's England team-mates. Knowles, a knee reconstruction specialist and physiotherapist based at the Vermont Orthopaedic Clinic in New England, has also worked with skiers and is known for his huge personal energy as well as expertise.
Mancini believes that two weeks away from the intensity of City may also help Balotelli to focus on recovery and sees potential for his prodigy to benefit from the seclusion in the same way that Wayne Rooney did at Nike World in Portland, Oregon, at the height of his personal difficulties last November.
Balotelli is understood to have been disappointed to have to leave Manchester, though Mancini and his staff want him to be in contention for next month's Manchester derby at Old Trafford and told him that he must take the two weeks. He left the city for London last Friday morning and is not expected back until a week today. "He can work quietly without a problem; without the pressure that he has here," Mancini said of the £24m summer signing. "He's gone out there to work and to improve his knee. He can work without any problems."
Balotelli's left knee injury is not affecting his ability to walk or drive and is only a problem under the stress of competitive action but, given the relatively innocuous incident which caused the problem – he overstretched the joint on his City debut in the Europe League qualifying round at Timisoara – the struggle to recover is puzzling. Balotelli has already undergone keyhole surgery on the lateral meniscus, one of the most crucial structures in the knee. There is a feeling that the lack of muscle development around the knee may be a contributory factor, or that Balotelli may have been too keen to return early.
There is a history of Milan-based players turning to the US for recuperation. Milan's Alexandre Pato has used a base in North Carolina while Thiago da Silva has tried something similar. Mancini said the former Internazionale striker's struggle to overcome his physical problems meant he was yet to operate at full fitness. "He arrived and he had a problem so he's never been 100 per cent while he's been here," the manager said. "But he's improved with games. For him it's important to start to play regularly – then he can show the supporters he's a good player."
Five goals in seven league starts explain Mancini's desperation to resolve the problem and the derby on 12 February is a possible target date for Balotelli: "Yes, maybe," Mancini said. "But it's more important that when he comes back he can play in all the games for the rest of the season. That's more important than the derby or the week before, or the week after."
The effect was certainly pronounced for Rooney, who had just emerged from his marital and contractual problems when United sent him to Portland. Balotelli's frustrations at having to leave Manchester are understandable, given that with the help of family and friends he is now becoming acclimatised to life in the city. Balotelli's joie de vivre in his new environment was revealed earlier this week in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport in which he discussed his new-found friendship with his neighbours on the ninth floor of a central Manchester apartment block and the role Aleksandar Kolarov and Patrick Vieira have played in helping him to settle.
Balotelli's jocular suggestion that Rooney was "not the best striker in Manchester" has not been taken as a serious statement in some quarters, though Mancini insisted that the player was comfortable with his comments.
"I know he likes to joke sometimes," Mancini said. "Mario has fantastic talent. He has everything he needs to be one of the best strikers but he needs to improve and work and show all these things. But it's a free world, if he wants to speak then he can speak. If somebody wants to say something then it is better that he says it. This is not the SAS. It's not like the war when we couldn't speak. If you want to say everything then you can say it. But it is important that he shows here his talent. For his future it's important that he improves. At the moment, this is the best league in Europe. This time is very important for him. I don't think he means this [comment about Rooney]. He is a fantastic player. United, City, United, City... [the rivalry is] normal."
Mancini, who has ruled out a bid in this transfer window for the 17-year-old Anderlecht forward Romelu Lukaku, has concluded ahead of tomorrow's trip to Aston Villa that United have overtaken Chelsea as the prime Premier League threat. "I think Chelsea will come back again. At the moment, Man United are better than Chelsea," he said. Mancini is set to allow captain Carlos Tevez to continue as penalty taker, despite missing consecutive kicks. "If he scores yes, if he doesn't then no. Maybe [one more chance]," he said.