Roberto Mancini opened the door to the possibility that Mario Balotelli could be sold this summer following a performance in which he was sent off for the second time this season in a 1-0 defeat that was catastrophic for Manchester City's title hopes.
Later officials from City, who are now eight points adrift of Manchester United with six games to play, said that Mancini had only been referring to the possibility that Balotelli would "probably" not play again this season. On top of three-game ban he may face retrospective action for a stamp on Alex Song.
The Manchester City manager also warned Balotelli that he needed to improve his behaviour or face the prospect that his career could be "finished" within "two or three years".
Mikel Arteta's goal with three minutes left condemned City to defeat minutes before Balotelli was sent off for a second booking. Combined with Manchester United's 2-0 win over Queen's Park Rangers, it leaves City eight points behind United with six games left.
"He's not a bad guy, he is a fantastic player," Mancini said of Balotelli, "but in this moment I"m very sorry for him, as he continues to lose his talent, his quality, I hope for him he can understand he's in a bad way for his future and he can change his behaviour in the future.
"He needs to change his behaviour if he wants to improve his life. I've seen plaYers finish in two or three years with huge talent. He needs to change. He should change it. He must change it. I hope for him he will." The Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was scathing of Balotelli's antics. "It's a circus," Neville said of Balotelli, "and everytime I've been to a circus there have always been clowns." "He will not play in the next six games," Mancini predicted, with Balotelli facing a three-game suspension after he was sent off for two yellow cards, and the possibility of a longer ban for an unpunished high tackle on Alex Song, which would be his third violent conduct offence of the season. When asked whether the Football Association should look again at that tackle, Mancini replied: "I hope".
"I think that Mario should deserve to be sent off after 10 minutes," Mancini said of the tackle on Song. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger agreed: "If the referee had the television he would have given him a red card. Balotelli was on the fringe. In many situations, he flirted with orange. A few times. And, in the end, he got the second yellow card." Mancini admitted that Jose Mourinho may be correct in his diagnosis of Balotelli as "unmanageable".
"If Mario continues like this, I probably agree," Mancini said. "But I hope always he can change his way. I always had good behaviour with him like the other players. Mario is young, 22. He could be my son. Young people make mistakes. Mario is a guy who's made a lot of mistakes. I hope for him, not me, that he can change." The defeat makes City's title challenge even less likely, although Mancini said that they would keep fighting.
"Today it's more difficult, but in my life I used to say that until you can't mathematically win it, you keep playing," he said. "We have 15 points more than last year. We've had a fantastic season until now, or maybe three days ago. I won one title where I was five point behind with five games to go. Everything can happen in football. It's clear we have to start to win. We start on Wednesday."
Wenger was delighted with victory, which moved Arsenal back to third place and leaves them five points ahead of fifth placed Chelsea. "It gave us three points that we deserved. It was all us after 10 minutes of the second half. I always felt the goal would come, though it was also important we didn't lose it. At home recently we have produced some outstanding performances against any teams, so I'm happy that we got the win the team continues to grow in quality."