Saturday 27 May 2017

Balotelli must find inner fire or face life out in the cold

Mario Balotelli. Photo: Getty Images
Mario Balotelli. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Roberto Mancini's insistence that Mario Balotelli will become one of the world's top players was a fine example of a manager repeating a line to make it true. It was never clear whether he was reciting it to convince the public or himself.

The Manchester City manager's faith was based partly on the knowledge that his own fate was tied up with that of the enfant terrible he bought from Inter Milan for £24m.

Mancini saw an eccentric genius. The rest of us observed an entertaining loner who would be forced to retreat to a hotel to escape the damage he caused by shooting fireworks through his own bathroom window.

Only this weekend Balotelli was in trouble again for leaving an Indian restaurant in Manchester way too late for Mancini's liking, given the proximity of the Chelsea game. The old script says the man-child yields to the will of his manager eventually and ends up giving interviews about how he has "matured."

Balotelli appears to hate this plot. Conformism is not for him. If there is one voice telling him that Mancini deserves obedience, it is drowned by the shout of his individuality. He struck a pose against normality and is stuck in that position.

With the cold at Stamford Bridge, it was easy to freeze in one expression. When the mood takes him though, you see the truth of Mancini's claim.

Balotelli involved himself too intermittently for him to earn equal status with David Silva or Sergio Aguero. After a brilliant act he often settled back to admire its beauty. In the Premier League there is no time for contemplation. The game rages on and Balotelli must learn to rage with it or go through life as a bit-part player.

There was no doubting his appetite in this ice-bath. On a rain-greased pitch his touch was immaculate. He moves likes a skater gliding through Chelsea's midfield. Borrowing a trick from Saturday's Clasico in Madrid, City struck after a hundred seconds when Aguero cut inside, 35 yards from goal, and carved a pass between Chelsea's centre-backs that left John Terry high and dry. Balotelli met the ball and scooted round Petr Cech to score.

His celebration in front of the Blues fans brought projectiles raining on to the pitch. There was no real urge to provoke with his eighth league goal of the campaign, but he was too close to the thick blue line. Boos and jeers accompanied his every move from then, not that he minds a dose of adversity. All part of being a contrarian.

If Balotelli wants to create a stir the best way would be through his brilliance. With Carlos Tevez gone and Edin Dzeko a fitful presence who can be wonderful or woeful, Mancini's special project has a chance to claim the central striker's position and thread a run of games together. To do that requires a degree of application that still looks beyond him.

Soon after his goal he was dropping off the line to display his skills in deeper positions. Aguero roamed left and Silva ghosted around. This was a side expelled from the Champions League only five days earlier. The opportunity was there to boot Chelsea out of the English title race.

Daniel Sturridge, once of sky blue Manchester, had other ideas. Just after the half-hour mark Sturridge bamboozled City's defence with quick-dancing feet and crossed for Raul Meireles to finish. That used to be Frank Lampard's job, until Meireles usurped him.

With Gael Clichy's dismissal the pendulum swung Chelsea's way, and Mancini screamed at Balotelli to help out defensively.

These short bursts of fury from the bench reflect Balotelli's self-absorption. Mancini was not the only angry one. A hostile reception was waiting when Balotelli finally made it back to his own penalty area. A yell and a push from Pablo Zabaleta conveyed the necessary urgency.

When City sent on Kolo Toure it seemed certain that Balotelli would give way. Instead Aguero traipsed off. City's scorer was left in a lonely battle with Chelsea's defenders, to try to stretch the play as blue shorts drove forward through the rain.

This is where Balotelli's body language becomes discouraging. There may be no switching off inside but on the outside he starts taking short steps, staring at the ground and drooping his shoulders. We judge him on this as we know he plays in bursts and sometimes fails to understand the collective nature of football in the Premier League.

Rushing back to defend with 20 minutes left, he was lectured again by Mancini and told to return to his striker's role. It was hard not to sympathise. He shrugged his shoulders, expressed his exasperation, and then did as he was told. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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