Roberto Mancini's relationship with Mario Balotelli is at breaking point after the Manchester City manager was pictured grappling with the Italian forward following a wild lunge at team-mate Scott Sinclair during training.
The incident, the latest in a long line of controversies involving the 22-year-old former Inter Milan striker, will only serve to harden City's resolve to sell Balotelli during the transfer window – a course of action Mancini had accepted as the only logical solution even before his ugly confrontation with the player.
Balotelli, who has previously been involved in clashes with Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng on the City training pitch, is understood to have triggered Mancini's fury by ignoring the manager's order to return to the dressing-room following the challenge on Sinclair.
The pair then became embroiled in a heated exchange of words before Mancini grabbed Balotelli and attempted to force him off the pitch. After Balotelli responded by shoving Mancini, the two men were separated by coaches Brian Kidd and Massimo Battara.
With Balotelli returning to the dressing-room, Mancini retreated to the sidelines and was then pictured crouching with his head in his hands.
While sources at the club have insisted the matter was resolved on the training pitch and that it was merely further evidence of the intensity demanded by Mancini during preparations for games, Balotelli's repeated transgressions are becoming a source of irritation at the club and he could yet be fined as result of the clash with Mancini.
Mancini had claimed in an interview this week that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, the City owner, "likes Balotelli because he recognises the talent and he exports the name of City all over the world".
Yet the negativity generated by the troublesome forward is understood to be viewed as more damaging than positive by the club's Abu Dhabi hierarchy, who would be prepared to sell the player this month if a buyer can be found.
While Balotelli's 11th-hour decision to abort plans to take City to a Premier League tribunal last month over a disputed fine of two weeks' wages (£340,000) was seen as a sign of the player's realisation that he had taken his career at the club to the brink, his actions did not stem the growing antipathy towards him from many of his team-mates and club staff.
Mancini has previously defended Balotelli, citing his potential to be one of the world's leading players, but his patience has now worn thin. The City manager has admitted publicly on two occasions this season that Balotelli has been omitted from first-team squads due to his unsatisfactory efforts on the training ground.
Having surprisingly selected Balotelli from the start in the derby defeat by Manchester United last month, Mancini withdrew the player shortly after half-time and strongly criticised his performance following the game.
Balotelli has not figured in the first team since, with a virus keeping him out of the Christmas fixtures. But he had been in contention for a return for the FA Cup third-round tie at home to Watford tomorrow.
With Sergio Aguero sidelined for at least another 10 days with a hamstring injury, Balotelli could still figure against Gianfranco Zola's team's due to Mancini's pragmatic, and often unpredictable, approach to the player. Mancini is expected to address the Balotelli situation in his weekly press conference this morning, but it is deemed unlikely that the manager will publicly condemn Balotelli and insist that his career at the club is over.
With only AC Milan regarded as serious contenders to sign Balotelli this month, City risk the player's valuation dropping even further should he be cast aside by Mancini.
Balotelli's former club, Inter Milan, lack the financial resources to fund a move, while instances of racist abuse towards the forward while playing against Juventus ensure that a move to Turin is a non-starter.
Milan must raise funds through the sales of Alexandre Pato and Robinho to pursue the signing of Balotelli, who is highly regarded by the club's vice-president Adriano Galliani. However, Milan president Silvio Berlusconi appeared to cast doubt on the club's intentions last night. "Balotelli doesn't convince me as a man," he said.
Selling Balotelli would leave City with only three senior forwards in Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko, but the club have high hopes for Swedish striker John Guidetti following his recent recovery from a virus.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)