Roberto Mancini will clearly need more evidence before he accepts the suggestion that Mario Balotelli is a reformed character.
The young striker's coming of age in the European Championship, especially the spectacular goal that decided the semi-final against Germany, has led him to be called "King Mario" by the Italian press rather than the wastrel young prince he appeared to be for much of last season.
When he was asked whether Balotelli had "grown up" in Poland and Ukraine, it was a question that invited the answer "yes" from the Manchester City manager yesterday. Instead, Mancini simply smiled. "The European Championship is like the World Cup; for a month you can expect a player to give 100 per cent," he said. "Mario is an important player for us and I think he can do his job better here."
Balotelli's national manager, Cesare Prandelli, has invested time and plenty of patience in attempting to persuade Europe's most mercurial footballer that a place on the bench is not an affront to his ability and that every sportsman will at some time be criticised.
Prandelli's reward was a sublime performance in the semi-final in Warsaw and, though Balotelli did not leave with a winner's medal, he was voted Italy's sexiest sportsman. For a young man often exposed to racism and derision in his own country, that is not an award to be sneered at.
With Sergio Aguero still recovering from a knee injury, Balotelli is likely to start at Liverpool tomorrow, a ground where his last league appearance, in November, saw him come on as a substitute and be sent off after 18 minutes. The door of the visitors' dressing room was damaged and Mancini pointedly remarked that, if Balotelli was responsible, he would pay for it.
Mancini has tried to nurture Balotelli since he was a teenager and knows he has to be continually driven forward. "He has a responsibility to us," he said. "He is an important player; we spent a lot of money on him and he has done well – in two years he has won the FA Cup and the Premier League. But it would be better if Mario always plays like he did in the European Championship and I don't think one month will change him. He needs to improve in this championship."
Should Balotelli start at Anfield, where Manchester City have won once since Boxing Day 1981, it will be his first since the disastrous afternoon at Arsenal in April when he was sent off and Mancini declared himself "finished" with him. In his absence, City won their last six games to overturn an eight-point deficit and win their first title since 1968. It was assumed that neither Balotelli nor Carlos Tevez would play for the club again. Instead, they will both be in Mancini's squad tomorrow.
What that squad will look like when the transfer window closes is a matter for conjecture and you would have got long odds in May that Liverpool would have been more aggressive and successful in the market than a club which, to quote the title of a recent book about them, are "richer than God".
Mancini, who has scarcely hidden his frustration with the club's football administrator, Brian Marwood, over the summer's transfer dealings, confirmed that Brendan Rodgers' stubborn refusal to do business over Daniel Agger meant the centre-half would not be exchanging Anfield for the Etihad Stadium. There was, he added, no chance of Javi Martinez, Athletic Bilbao's commanding young central defender, being brought in as a second choice.
"It is very difficult, his cost is too high for me," said the man, who like Carlo Ancelotti at Paris St-Germain, another club that might be considerably richer than God, is used to being quoted a minimum of £30m for any player.
Adam Johnson was, said Mancini, "still" a Manchester City player, although the word "still" is important. Should he be sold to Sunderland, the club he supported while growing up in what was once called the east Durham coalfield, it might fulfil a boyhood dream but it would be a matter for regret at Eastlands.
Johnson was Mancini's first signing as Manchester City manager, a surprising and successful choice. His problem may be similar to the one that afflicted Michael Owen at Real Madrid, who once remarked that he was never made to feel as if he were one of the galacticos.
There has been no marquee signing this summer, which given the importance of the Champions League to both Mancini personally – he has rarely done well in it – and the club is surprising. The last time Manchester City entered the competition as champions, Malcolm Allison declared they were ready to sweep aside "the cowards of Europe". They were knocked out in the first round by Fenerbahce.
"We must make changes before the Champions League," said Mancini. "In the Premier League, you can lose a goal and have time to recover but in the Champions League – no."
By the time the competition proper restarts next month, he would hope to have Aguero back from the knee injury that marred Sunday's narrow 3-2 win over Southampton, where City, in their manager's words, performed "not like a team but 10 men all trying to score". However, Aguero's recovery has been complicated by the fact he has been included in Alejandro Sabella's squad for Argentina's two World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Peru. That, said Mancini, was "impossible". "He needs a minimum two weeks without training and then he can get back to work," said his manager who was asked whether Aguero would have to fly to Argentina merely to declare himself unfit to Sabella's medical staff.
"Yes, he can go to Argentina [have the medical] and then fly back quickly. These are ridiculous rules but we have to respect them."
Making amends? Mario's misery
Mario Balotelli will hope to fare better than on his last visit to Anfield. The Italian, who did not feature in Manchester City's League Cup semi-final at Liverpool in January, was sent off for two bookable offences 18 minutes after coming on as a substitute in last November's 1-1 league draw. Having now seen red four times at City, the Anfield dismissal was Balotelli's third in just 15 months at the club.Reuse content