THE smile on Roberto Mancini's face did not look like a disguise when in the course of one of his most frank discussions yet of Mario Balotelli he described yesterday how, during a discussion with the striker, he had told him: "If you played with me 10 years ago, I give to you every day maybe one punch in your head."
Balotelli had actually done his manager a favour, by providing a topic of conversation which deflected the scrutiny away from City's collapse in form. But the same old impression that the Manchester City manager always gives -- that he is willing to laugh away the 21-year-old's indiscretions and look forward to the day when he grows up -- did little to remove the suspicion that team-mates who are tired of Balotelli's antics will continue to feel it is one rule for him and another for the rest.
Solving a problem called Mario is possible, Mancini insisted. "Every big game he plays very well. His problem is concentration. But I work with him every day. I don't speak with him every day because otherwise I would need a psychiatrist! But I speak with him because I don't want him to lose his quality. Mario can be one of the top players in Europe. I don't want him to lose his talent."
And for those team-mates who are more unsparing with Balotelli, there was this from the manager.
"Team-mates should play only to play. For Mario I think it's my job (to manage him). It's not (the players'). Because when you have a player like Mario you should always not talk bad things against him because he is your team-mate. If you say something about him, it's better to talk face-to-face; to say what you think. I think it is always like this. Mario is young.
"He can do some mistakes. He has paid for his mistake. I can understand (why players are annoyed). I understand this. But there are different ways to help guys like Mario. I spoke with players when Mario arrived two years ago. I said: 'Mario is a young player, he has a fantastic talent but he is young he can do some mistakes sometimes'."
You can certainly forgive some of the players reading this today with a collective groan, at the implication that they are there to help Balotelli along when he's back from one of his Italian jaunts. Especially when they discern the substantial difference between the characterisation of Balotelli, the flawed genius, and Mancini's far cooler depiction yesterday of the potential of Adam Johnson -- whose failure to progress has owed as much to what occurs off the field as on it. Behind the scenes he has driven City half mad at times over the past seven months. "With Mario it's difficult. Bad or good behaviour, its Mario. (But) Mario is different from Adam," Mancini explained.
"Adam also has a good talent but also it's important he puts this on the pitch this talent. Sometime he doesn't do this."
Johnson, Gareth Barry, Samir Nasri, Micah Richards and, more recently, the Manchester City doctor, have at various stages of this season learnt via Mancini's press conferences that he thinks they can do better.
Here, crystallised in a 10-minute conversation, was Mancini's blind spot.
"If we lose at Arsenal (on Sunday) and (Manchester) United beat QPR, then yes (the title is lost)," reflected the manager, who will have Joleon Lescott reunited with Vincent Kompany at the Emirates on Sunday and "probably" Sergio Aguero, whose foot was burned by an anaesthetic spray.
Nasri is also expected back to face his old side.
"I can't think about defeat," Mancini said.
"After seven months it is natural that some players are tired.
"But it is important to be strong.
"It is easy to stick together when you are on the top for seven months. It is not over yet."
We will learn 48 hours from now whether his players see things so clearly and whether, in spite of everything, they are ready to spill blood for him.