Roberto Mancini has claimed he would punch Mario Balotelli every day if he was a team-mate of the Manchester City forward after he admitted he understood why senior players were becoming frustrated with the controversial Italian.
But in a warning to his squad at the Etihad Stadium, Mancini has urged the players not to "talk bad things" about the 21-year-old after he insisted that he is determined to help Balotelli and ensure he realises his potential in a City shirt.
In a week in which City's title ambitions have suffered a potentially decisive blow after Manchester United moved five points clear at the top of the table -- Mancini conceded the race will be over if United win and City lose this weekend -- Balotelli's knack of courting controversy on and off the pitch has led him to dominate the headlines again.
An on-field clash with team-mate Aleksandar Kolarov during the 3-3 draw against Sunderland in the Premier League, which led to critical post-match comments by Mancini, has been followed by tabloid revelations about Balotelli's private life.
And with senior players known to be growing increasingly unhappy at what they perceive to be Mancini's preferential treatment of Balotelli, City's manager accepts their displeasure.
Mancini said he told Balotelli, jokingly, "if you played with me 10 years ago, I give to you every day maybe one punch in your head!" He added: "But no, I understand this, his team-mates' frustrations. But there are different ways to help guys like Mario and team-mates should play only to play."
Mancini said it is his job to manage Balotelli, not the players', "because when you have a player like Mario you should never say 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 spoke with the 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 make some mistakes sometimes.'
"I think it is always like this. Mario can make some mistakes and he has paid for his mistake."
Despite some players believing that Mancini's handling of Balotelli is uncharacteristically lenient in comparison to his team-mates, the City manager insisted that he treats the former Inter Milan striker the same as every other player.
He said it is "not true" that he gives him preferential treatment "because Mario stayed on the bench for five, six games at the start of the season because his behaviour was not good. He paid a lot of money in a fine for his behaviour.
"I want to help him always, even when I am disappointed with him because this is my job.
"With Mario it's difficult -- bad or good behaviour, it's Mario -- Mario is different from Adam Johnson. I'm not arguing with Adam because also Adam has a good talent, but also it's important he puts this on the pitch, this talent. Sometimes he doesn't do this. But if Mario is not one of the best players it will be his fault because he has everything.
"Every big game he plays very well -- his problem is concentration. But I don't speak with him every day because otherwise I would need a psychologist!"
With Mancini likely to have top-scorer Sergio Aguero back from a foot injury against Arsenal on Sunday, Balotelli is likely to drop to the substitutes' bench as City attempt to rediscover the winning habit following draws against Stoke City and Sunderland.
And with United due to face Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford on Sunday lunchtime, ahead of City's game against Arsene Wenger's team at the Emirates, Mancini has admitted that the title race will be over if the gap becomes eight points by the end of the weekend.
"If we lose at Arsenal and United beat QPR, then yes," Mancini said. "But right now, it is my opinion that this championship is not finished.
"If United win all their games, then congratulations because they deserve to win the title. But seven games from the end, anything can happen.
"We have lost four points in two games. It is possible that can happen to them too. We have the derby to play which we can get three points from and also, in six games they can lose points.
"I can say that I am proud of what the players have done in this championship until today. We were on the top for a long time and I think we have improved a lot as a team."
He added: "In this moment, it is important to be strong. It is easy to stick together when you are on the top for seven months and you are winning virtually every game.
"But when you build a new team you also have to face and overcome these difficult moments and that helps you improve as a team." (© Daily Telegraph, London)