James Lawton: Manchester City boss Mancini hopes to tame Balotelli
Roberto Mancini is not the first football manager, and nor will he be the last, to make a large investment in someone as profoundly problematic as Mario Balotelli.
It is, after all, the oldest compromise in football: you want all the good things, the discipline, the sanitised image, the shining merit, the suitor for your daughter, but then what matters most when you need a goal, when everything rests upon it, a credit to the game and humanity or some shameless, half-tapped hell-raiser who might just find a way?
It is also true of Mancini that no one ever went into such a precipitous challenge with his eyes quite so open to the reality of exchanging £24m for a 20-year-old carrying quite such scary credentials.
"Mad as a Mario Balotelli" is certainly looking a viable new phrase in the football lexicon as it gains ground here at roughly the rate it did back in Milan when, as the rising star of Internazionale, he paraded himself on the street in the red-and-black shirt of the hated Milan – shortly before throwing the black and blue of Inter to the floor in front of 50,000-odd zealous fans.
It was at this point that Mancini's successor at San Siro, Jose Mourinho, not someone entirely beyond the odd touch of eccentricity, decided that the lad was, for all his luminous talent, possibly not worth the trouble.
The Special One dryly observed: "As far as I'm concerned a young boy like him cannot allow himself to have less training than Luis Figo."
"Super Mario" has for some time been known for the kind of acute finishing which lifted Mancini and his Manchester City off the hook at The Hawthorns but also quite as well for the juvenile behaviour which brought a red card and his absence from tomorrow's huge game against Manchester United.
It means for Mancini – whose No 1 priority is surely to stabilise his dressing room and create a vital ethos of consistency and professionalism – an early plunge into a dilemma that he surely must have anticipated would come sooner or later – and one which has never been far from the surface of big-time football.
Currently the Italian shares it with Chris Hughton, the Newcastle United manager who has brilliantly exploited the power and speed and deceptive control of Andy Carroll even as the 21-year-old has been displaying an eye for trouble that would do credit to a touchy wolverine.
There is one huge difference, though. Hughton inherited the dishevelled Carroll baggage accompanying the fierce talent and can declare with an easy heart, for the moment at least, that he can take the best of the boy and live with the rest.
Mancini embraced the classic agonising that has afflicted so many notable football men down the years, from Sir Matt Busby's calculations about that time when the anarchy of George Best became more destructive than the uplift of his dwindling brilliance, the attempts of Terry Venables to rationalise the football existence of Paul Gascoigne and Sir Alex Ferguson's current handling of the balancing act demanded by the conduct of Wayne Rooney.
Mancini sought it out when he signed Balotelli and insists that he will in the long run draw the benefit of an exceptional talent. It is a decision which Italy's new national team manager, Cesare Prandelli, who was at West Bromwich on Sunday to see the Balotelli goals and the buffoonery that followed, is now pondering. So in the matter of Carroll is England's Fabio Capello.
Of course, Prandelli and Capello have little to lose. They don't have to wait for the midnight phone calls on a daily basis. They can concentrate more clearly on what a Balotelli or a Carroll has to give rather than destroy, in themselves and around them.
One old striker of the highest quality yesterday had a ready solution for Hughton. It was to take what he could of the extraordinary vitality of the young giant on the field – right up to the January transfer window. Then sell him off for a cool £30m or so before getting on with the building of a superior spirit at Newcastle and await his own best opportunities, in the form of a perversely delayed contract offer from the club he has served so well or inevitable overtures from elsewhere.
"It seems obvious to me," said the old pro, "that Carroll needs to be taken out of Newcastle, away from a locality and acquaintances that have taught him the way he is apparently currently living. He needs a new big club in a big city. He needs that kind of shake-up and if he doesn't get it I can see a lot of tears."
Mancini's situation is rather more complicated. He can hardly resort to the declaration made by the fine Chelsea manager Dave Sexton to the late Peter Osgood, a sublime talent but one not always supported by a supremely professional instinct. After one Osgood spree, Sexton said he was on his last chance. If it happened again, he would have him into his office, he would lock the door and the best man would leave on his own two feet. Sexton could say that. His father was a professional boxer and no one would ever be quick to test his own resolve. Mancini's personal courage is not being questioned here, only the size and volatile temperament of his opponent.
Most regrettable for the City manager is that Balotelli is unavailable as a potentially decisive shock trooper tomorrow night. He bought him expressly for such a purpose, one that if successful would compensate for a whole lot of trouble. It may just happen down the road but, for the moment at least, Mancini must sweat out the possibility that he is holding only a £24m inhabitant of a box of frogs.