Roberto Mancini declared yesterday that he is not sure he can rely on Mario Balotelli for a game as significant as tomorrow's Premier League tie at Stamford Bridge and admitted he is still mystified by the player on whom he has staked his reputation.
The striker issued a public apology yesterday for the challenge which has earned him a one-game European ban but his Manchester City manager is beginning seriously to question whether he can nurture him into the world-class player he believes he can be. Mancini has not entirely ruled out playing him tomorrow. But the dismissal for thrusting his studs into the chest of Dynamo Kiev's Goran Popov – who left Eastlands with red and blue bruises on his legs and feet – may mark the beginning of the end for a player urged by his representatives to stick things out at City for a season in the hope that Manchester will grow on him. The city has finally captured his imagination, but his career is heading nowhere. He would earn considerably less money at Milan, his favourite club, but would find the environment there more comfortable.
Balotelli's misery will be compounded tomorrow when Italian coach Cesare Prandelli omits him and Roma's Daniele de Rossi, another recipient of a Uefa ban, from his squad to face Slovenia in a Euro 2012 qualifier next Friday and, ironically, Ukraine, in a friendly four days later. Balotelli said that he "should have showed more consideration", but Nigel de Jong frankly declared that Balotelli is letting the side down with his poor temperament.
"Mario is a talented boy but I've told him he's got to learn from his mistakes. He's disadvantaging his own team," De Jong said. "He's still a great player for us to have and tomorrow is a new day. We're going to sit with him and he's going to realise that he's got to change the way that he plays because he's always going to be a marked man. He knows that now. But we have to continue to work with him as well. We know what he can do. Some of the things he shows at times are unbelievable."
Impressing these facts on Balotelli will be difficult. Despite his high levels of intelligence, he has a short attention span and will not take well to being preached at. Mancini, who will fine the player, is preparing for a negative response to Balotelli from his own team-mates. "Maybe, but this is normal," he said. "I hope every day he will change his behaviour. I can't understand his bad behaviour sometimes. I hope he can change."
The players who will be called on to talk some sense into him are his close friend Aleksandar Kolarov and Patrick Vieira, who has tried to take Balotelli under his wing since the striker followed him from Internazionale to City. Balotelli and Kolarov, who speaks fluent Italian from his Lazio career, lunched together at Balotelli's favourite San Carlo restaurant in Manchester yesterday. "We are there to help him and not to criticise him or blast him away," De Jong said. "He is still a young lad and has to learn."
Mancini's tone was notably tougher after Thursday night's events – a sign that he feels the time for coaxing Balotelli has passed. "I am angry with him, definitely," Mancini said. "The referee was so-so but I know that important players cannot do what Mario did in this game. Mario is young, he needs to think about what he wants to do because he has everything he needs to become a fantastic striker. But he lost the tie for us this time."
Gianfranco Zola, who knows Balotelli from the Italian under-21 set-up, was one of the few voices from outside the club urging patience. "He is a skilful player, a strong player. He just needs to learn self-discipline [and] I think he knows that," Zola said. "He has to learn to use his passion for football in the best way."
Balotelli is worth persisting with – he has 10 goals in 15 starts this season and looks vastly more dangerous in his good moments than Edin Dzeko, whose mere nine starts are remarkably few for a player who cost City £27m and who seemed short of pace in his 14-minute appearance against Kiev.
Balotelli's destiny may depend on his family getting through to him. He does listen to his foster mother Silvia and she, more than anyone, understands the complex make-up of the individual she adopted as a two-year-old.
If Balotelli is excluded tomorrow, there may be another opportunity for Dzeko, though all the signs are that Mancini will seek to repeat the formula which saw City beat Carlo Ancelotti's side in Manchester, by depriving them of pace and sneaking a goal. "I don't think it will be like last year," Mancini said yesterday – which, considering City won 4-2, suggested he will be getting players behind the ball.
The TV schedulers have won the battle of will with the Metropolitan and Greater Manchester Police forces to have the all-Manchester FA Cup semi -final staged at 5.15pm on Saturday 16 April. Police wanted a lunchtime kick-off with less drinking time, though ITV wanted the more lucrative teatime audience.
Meanwhile, Mancini does not believe Adam Johnson should be selected for England international duty. "I don't think so. It's better for him to work with us for two weeks," the manager said.
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