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Balotelli tantrum evokes grim memories
The 3rd installment in James Horncastle's month-long series documenting the Battle for Manchester
Last Saturday, an irritated Mario Balotelli had to be pulled away by Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany from his own teammate. He was irate that Aleksandar Kolarov refused to let him take a free-kick against Sunderland. The incident brought up grim memories.
BATTLE FOR MANCHESTER
James Horncastle's month-long series documenting the Premier League battle between Manchester United and Manchester City:
Two-and-a-half years ago at Inter Milan, Balotelli had won a penalty against Palermo and felt he had the right to convert it. But Samuel Eto’o was the designated taker on the team and he placed the ball down on the spot ready to shoot. Balotell petulantly chose to stand in the way of his teammate’s run-up. Javier Zanetti then had to intervene and led the forward away by the wrist like a naughty schoolboy.
It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that he has learned nothing in that space of time. This will not come as a surprise to former coach José Mourinho. Recall, for instance, how he once said in reference to Balotelli that if someone works with players like Zanetti, Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi and doesn’t learn anything, it's because they have "only one brain cell."
Yet City manager Roberto Mancini has always had greater faith in the youngster. He sees his own tempestuous self as a player in Balotelli. "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'. I have taken it on board."
Their relationship has been likened to that between a father and son, although Balotelli’s agent Mino Raiola has countered that it has more in common with that of a husband and wife.
If that's the case, then perhaps they have never before been this close to divorce.
Mancini was arguably as hard on Balotelli as he's ever been after City's 3-3 draw with Sunderland, revealing that had Carlos Tévez not been lacking match fitness, then he would have made a change straight after kickoff, so disappointed was he in his protégé. "I was thinking [of substituting Balotelli] after five minutes," he said. “Mario didn't play well. In the game the strikers should be the difference but not just in the last few minutes - before then."
This was certainly harsh. Balotelli had scored twice after all, the first an equalizing penalty on the stroke of halftime, the second a fine solo effort that got his side back into the match with five minutes to go. The focus, however, lay elsewhere. To The Sunday Times Balotelli was "City’s April Fool."
While he should never have got into a petty squabble with Kolarov, in fairness to him, he’d already stood aside and watched as his teammate had two earlier free-kicks saved by Simon Mignolet. Maybe he was justified in thinking someone else should have a turn, especially considering that the set-piece in question was made for a right-footed player to curl in?
If that had been the only conflict Balotelli had got involved in that afternoon then, let’s be honest, the scrutiny he has since endured probably would have only been slightly less intense. It was not: reports emerged that he had apparently also clashed with another teammate, Yaya Touré, in the changing room. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time the pair have quarreled - they had a heated exchange after last month’s defeat by Swansea.
There's another precedent for this from Balotelli's time at Inter. In the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Barcelona in 2010, he was brought on with 15 minutes remaining with orders to help the team protect their 3-1 lead. Balotelli gave the ball away a couple of times. He was whistled by his own fans and shouted at by Mourinho.
Come the final whistle, when everyone else was celebrating, he took off his shirt and disrespectfully tossed it to the ground before storming down the tunnel. Materazzi caught up with Balotelli and tore into him. So did Diego Milito and Cristian Chivu who, according to some accounts, even threw a boot. A stunned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, then at Barcelona, looked on in shock. "My teammates had never seen anything like it," he said. "They had never seen a player lash out against a teammate like that, which is what Materazzi did… If it had happened to me, I would have put him on the floor in two seconds."
As admirable as Ibrahimovic's protectiveness was on witnessing the fracas, Balotelli had without any doubt gone too far. A couple of days later, La Gazzetta dello Sport's front page bore a picture of him with the headline: "The End." Similar things have been printed about Balotelli in the past week, indicating that City are fed up and will "cut him loose" in the summer.
History it seems is repeating itself.
As at Inter, there's a sense that Balotelli risks compromising rather than complementing City's ambitions at a delicate moment of their challenge for honors. He is seen as a distraction. Just as Inter could have done without Balotelli provocatively declaring his support for AC Milan, openly attending some of their games and letting himself be persuaded into pulling on their rival's shirt on a satirical TV show during their treble-winning season, City have found some, though not all, of the antics that have endeared him to supporters unnecessary. They have created a circus.
The ringmaster must also shoulder his share of the blame. If unity is an issue at City, it's partly by Mancini's own making. By not holding Balotelli to the same standard of discipline as other players, by being too lenient on him and maybe too harsh on Tévez, he has created the conditions in which resentment might be harbored. That potential lack of togetherness could well be the difference in this season's title race.
There have of course been other factors too, from the untimely absence of Kompany last month, David Silva's exhaustion and Sergio Aguero's freak reaction to a spray applied to his foot. But Balotelli is a convenient scapegoat. While still unable to completely rein in his own impulses, he has, on balance, made some significant leaps forward in many respects this season, scoring 17 times in 18 games, including that memorable brace in the Manchester derby.
As destructive as his behavior was on Saturday against Sunderland, both his goals could still prove to be the catalyst to overhaul United. That, however, seems distinctly unlikely after they extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to five points following a 2-0 win at Blackburn Rovers on Monday night. But with a maverick like Balotelli in the side anything is possible.
If City were to sell him in the summer, they might come to regret it. Just ask Inter president Massimo Moratti, who has frequently said: "I'd take him back tomorrow morning." It seems clubs can't live with or without Balotelli. But, as one of Manchester's greatest bands, Joy Division, once sung, this love might tear City apart.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.
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