James Lawton: Failed gamble on Balotelli leaves Mancini low on credit
Mario Balotelli's career hangs perilously at Manchester City despite his gracious decision to abandon an appeal against a £340,000 fine for serial misbehaviour. But then how secure is his manager and mentor Roberto Mancini?
Some would say it is already astonishing that Mancini staggers on after a second straight failure to make any kind of impact on the Champions League and the serious slippage of a six-point deficit in the defence of the Premier League title.
Certainly City owner Sheikh Mansour, having divested himself of more than £1bn in the course of his investment, is said to be concerned by City's failure to progress at the highest level – but without reaching the limits of something Roman Abramovich might consider other-worldly patience.
Yet breaking point can hardly be far away if City fail to build on a strikingly impressive re-statement of their champion credentials at Newcastle last weekend. City, benefiting from exceptional performances by such proven competitors as Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva, showed the best of their game: fluid movement, fine skill and the sharpest of cutting edges.
Newcastle were not so much beaten as engulfed. However, Mancini's body language remains most expressive of despair and there is a growing theory that he is ever more detached from both the thinking and the affections of his playing and coaching staff.
The latest cause for division is the huge one of Balotelli. The coach remains doggedly convinced that one day he can unlock for City the explosive talent that so dramatically demolished the powerful German contenders in last summer's European Championships. Balotelli was a god in that game, scoring goals with a command that seemed to be summoned with uncanny ease.
Yet in Manchester Balotelli remains a discordant incident always waiting to happen. His projected appeal against the loss of two weeks' wages – which provoked the stunning statistic that an average-earning City fan needed to work 13 years to amass such a sum – was based on the technicality of an agreement between the Premier League and the players' union that such punitive action could only be based on specific red and yellow cards and not a pattern of persistent misbehaviour.
Balotelli's lawyers made the 11th-hour decision that any success in the court room would make their client's position at the Etihad Stadium quite untenable. Nor would it have done his protector Mancini a whole lot of good – and least of all in the eyes of disillusioned fans.
There was a time when the eccentricities of the young and plainly troubled Italian were a source of considerable amusement, even celebration, on the terraces. But having become weary in the wait for something like sustained performance, and also having endured the ordeal of Carlos Tevez's reinstatement in the wake of some quite shocking professional betrayals, the majority of fans would now welcome Balotelli's departure, almost certainly to Milan.
There he would be guaranteed some warmth of welcome, partly for his dramatic contribution to the Euros and also one of his most notorious pranks. This was wearing the red and black of Milan while still in the employ of their bitter rivals Internazionale. His behaviour caused such outrage – he wore the offending shirt on one of Italy's most popular TV shows – that Inter captain Javier Zanetti declared: "Mario needs to concentrate on what he can do on the pitch. He cannot allow himself to behave like this."
Inter's boss Jose Mourinho brusquely dismissed Balotelli for being simply not worth the trouble, which was a reaction to the player's throwing down of his shirt after fans complained about a poor Champions League performance against Barcelona. At the time, Balotelli was contrite, but only after a fashion, saying: "I'm sorry for the situation that has been created. I am the first person who has suffered because I adore football and I want to play and now I'm waiting in silence so I can return to being useful to my team. I want to put the past behind me, look to the future."
Mancini, who knew the talent of Balotelli from his days as coach of Inter, was sufficiently impressed to sign him for City at £20m. It was an extraordinary decision considering the player's record of instability but Mancini insisted: "His style of play will suit the Premier League. Because he is so young there is big chance for him to improve. He is a strong and exciting player and City fans will enjoy watching him play."
Big chance that he will improve, did Mancini say, or fat chance?
For many, Mancini's willingness to gamble on Balotelli provides a window on his football soul. The most persistent criticism of the manager is that he has failed in the vital matter of building a team ethos. There are inevitably tensions when a group of talented and highly, even insanely, rewarded players compete for a limited number of first-team places but it was hard to believe that the arrival of Balotelli and all his idiosyncrasies did not provide still another one.
In the dressing-room, the point of tolerance of Balotelli's behaviour has passed and some of the City background staff are convinced there can be only one solution. It is Balotelli's disappearance in the January transfer window – and one last attempt by Mancini to build an authentic team spirit.
Minus Balotelli, City certainly regained something of the aura of champions at Newcastle. They showed a unity of effort utterly missing in Champions League humiliation inflicted by Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax. Mancini, a tormented figure for so much of the season, could point to the kind of rhythm which last season suggested his team might just be moving into a new dimension.
Has it come too late? Mancini says the Champions League "was a bad experience but we have learnt some big lessons and the team will be stronger for them. We have an important title to defend and I think can we can do it."
Belatedly, he may finally agree that it might be easier to accomplish without the relentless distraction of Mario Balotelli. It might be a conclusion helped along by a new priority to rescue his own skin.