Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager , yesterday provided another insight into the liberties he grants Mario Balotelli by revealing there is nothing he can do to stop his habit of smoking five or six cigarettes a day.
The 21-year-old, whose relatively free rein at City saw him socialising until 1am less than 48 hours before City's defeat at Chelsea earlier this month and visiting his girlfriend at a pizza restaurant on the eve of last month's loss in Napoli, was first pictured smoking on the club's hotel balcony during pre-season tour in Los Angeles.
"Yeah, yeah I know this," Mancini said when the player's habit was put to him. "I know that he smokes, yes. If he was my son I would give him a kick up the arse! But he is not my son. I told him that it is better you don't smoke. I am against cigarettes always and for this reason my son doesn't smoke. There are players who smoke in Italy and I think also here. I don't think he smokes a lot – five or six a day."
The manager's acceptance of Balotelli's habit – despite the potential effect on cardiovascular and respiratory performance – reflects his belief that nurturing the player is the only way to see him reap his full potential.
Mancini wants to add to the Italian contingent in his ranks, too, and has confirmed his interest in signing Roma's midfielder Daniele de Rossi, as reported by The Independent earlier this month. Despite Mancini's private concerns that the 28-year-old's wages could be in the Carlos Tevez bracket, De Rossi could join for as little as £5m because he is out of contract this summer.
"De Rossi is a champion and would be the perfect man to improve City," Mancini told Gazzetta dello Sport. "If we get the right signals [from Roma], it is worth trying [to sign him]. I would not be surprised if he stays in Rome. But if he doesn't sign, City will be ready."
City could have lost top spot in the Premier League to Manchester United by the time they play at Sunderland tomorrow – some accomplishment for Sir Alex Ferguson's injury-ravaged squad, who would have fallen seven points behind had City won at Liverpool just a month ago. Mancini said that he still felt United "are better than us" but said the champions' sequence of away games in the second half of the season was tougher than City's, which could be a significant factor.
"After playing us at Old Trafford, United didn't have a game against a top squad and they have all the games now in January and February," Mancini said. "For this reason I think this could be an important month."
He appears to have pinpointed a 21-day period, from 21 January, in which United face Arsenal and Chelsea away and Liverpool at home as pivotal. "In the end it could be that United are better than us," he said. "But we will be OK if we focus on the next 20 games and think positively in difficult moments – because in every championship every team has a difficult moment. United had only one difficult moment, against us. There will be difficult moments again for United, for us, for Tottenham."
Mancini is bitter about the scheduling which sees his side face Liverpool 48 hours after Sunderland and said he would make "seven or eight" changes for the arrival of Kenny Dalglish's side at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
He told Gazzetta that a new contract for him "depends on results" but that he is "fine at City." Hearing City fans chant his name to the tune of Domenico Modugno's "Volare" particularly delights him, he revealed.
He expressed hopes that Owen Hargreaves would now join City's Premier League efforts – in line with expectations when he joined the club. "When there is a player who doesn't play for two years maybe is OK for one week and then there is a problem. Maybe with his calf and his knee there is a little problem. But I hope he is fit for January."
Of a Tevez deal with Milan, Mancini added: "We hope to close it in a week or 10 days but a loan is not possible."
Mario Balotelli is the latest in a long list of players to have smoked at the peak of their careers. The World Cup winners Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona and once Man United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez all liked a puff. Gianluca Vialli also loved a smoke. Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney have also been caught with tab in hand in the past.