By Jay Jaffa
At Mario Balotelli's unveiling two-and-a-half years ago, Roberto Mancini proclaimed: "I genuinely believe in one or two years he will be one of the best players in the world." It is fair to say that the enigmatic Italian striker has failed to fulfil this promise and with tensions reaching a head between manager and player, one wonders if he ever will.
Those at the press conference that day may well have scoffed at such a suggestion had they borne witness to the £22.5 million man's various run-ins between with first Mancini and, later, Jose Mourinho at Inter.
Written off by the now-Real Madrid coach as a problem not worth humouring, Balotelli was sought out by his mentor as he matured from a moody teenager to a troublesome twentysomething. Now though, with a tribunal between player and club due to be settled on Wednesday, we may finally be discussing the end of the mercurial forward's time in England.
The relationship between Mancini and Balotelli is curious and has been ever since he arrived at Mancehster City. The Palermo-born striker spoke of the manager's importance a year into his stay at the Etihad Stadium, explaining: "Whenever I had a problem, Mourinho always went against me. When I have a problem here, Mancini always supports me."
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Likewise, Balotelli has mentioned in the past of a tale that Mancini imparted on him when in Italy. "Roberto keeps repeating: 'When I went from Bologna to Sampdoria [as an 18-year-old], I already felt that I was better than everyone else. Then I understood that I had to work hard to improve'," the forward recalled. "I have taken it on board."
Somewhere along the way, this has been lost.
Such parental tendencies have been mocked in the football world – few managers have ever indulged such a petulant player as much as Mancini. Yet, his often over-the-top tantrums aimed at Balotelli the footballer, rather than the person, seem at odds with the guidance that he has tried to pass on.
Take the friendly against LA Galaxy in the summer of 2011, or the Manchester derby earlier in December. In America an impudent backheel at goal saw Balotelli substituted after just 31 minutes; at the Etihad Stadium he lasted just 21 minutes more and just seven after half-time as his nonchalant flick was intercepted.
Both times, Mancini remonstrated from the sidelines, flapping his arms about and growling towards his bench as his protege tried something not befitting the occasion. And yet both were enormous overreactions: one was a friendly that City were leading 1-0, the other a derby in which Balotelli had played with purpose and intelligence in the first 45 minutes - the defence was the issue here.
Many people do not 'get' Balotelli. They wonder why he deserves to be paid £170,000 per week when he can only muster 50 per cent of his maximum effort on a match-by-match basis. Why, they wonder, does he keep getting a second chance? Why does he start important games when he clearly cannot be trusted?
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The final straw could prove to be the tribunal which he will attend in an attempt to reverse a two-week fine for the disciplinary problems that saw him miss 11 of the club's fixtures last season. It is highly unusual for a disciplinary case to go as far this – even the rebellious Tevez backed down after his hiatus from the club.
You are left thinking that perhaps it would be in Balotelli's interest to let this pass. The ill-discipline of last season coupled with the sporadic and tempestuous displays this campaign that have yielded just a solitary goal have left him in a precarious position with an under-fire manager. He has battled his bosses in the past, often sticking to his guns to little benefit.
A man that will not learn, will not grow; Mourinho saw it, now it is Mancini's turn.
With an enforced absence from the first-team until he "trains more" and three weeks left to save his City career, the deterioration of his relationship with Mancini, the man who saw a little piece of him in the virtuoso striker, may signal the end of Super Mario's time in England.
As Mourinho once said: "If he doesn't do it [reach his potential] with Roberto, it will be difficult to do with another one [manager]." Balotelli should hope that he does not have to live through this cautionary tale.
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