MANCHESTER: Mario Balotelli made his return to action, after a five-match illness break, towards the end of Manchester City’s 3-0 FA Cup win over Watford.

Visiting fans chanted, mischievously: “Fight, fight!” as Balotelli and manager Roberto Mancini stood, side by side, awaiting the substitution opportunity.

Thrusting the controversial Italian back into action as soon as possible was Mancini’s answer to renewed speculation about how long Super Mario can last at Eastlands. New doubts had been raised after the publication of pictures of player and manager scuffling together during training.

The publicity was possible because photographers can access a public footpath which runs alongside City’s current, temporary training ground. Balotelli had kicked new signing Scott Sinclair in a training game and had refused to obey a sending-off order from Mancini.

The manager then tried to pull Balotelli off the pitch and the pair had to be separated by assistant manager Bryan Kidd and other coaches.

Balotelli, regularly in trouble on and off the pitch, provides the sort of distraction City do not need as they chase neighbours United in defence of their Premier title. But, with Sergio Aguero injured and Yaya Toure off to the African Nations Cup, City cannot afford to sell him now – if, that is, anyone else wanted to buy him, which is doubtful.

Mancini, who worked with Balotelli at Internazionale, knows all about the Italy forward’s dysfunctional childhood and remains prepared to afford him all of a forgiving father’s patience.

He said: “I will give him another one hundred chances if it is possible. I think that he can change because I am here for this. But I think he has to understand that the career of a player is very short. He is 22 but three, four and five years can pass in one second and I hope the day arrives when he understands his ability.

“If he doesn’t change, for him it will be very difficult in the future. For him, not me. Mario could stay with me one day, one month, five years. He is 22 years old. He needs to change. His problem is for himself.”

Mancini admitted he lost his temper for “one or two seconds” but said the incident had not been as dramatic as newspaper pictures had suggested.

Three weeks ago Balotelli dropped a plan to take the club to a Premier League tribunal and accepted a two-week fine for indiscipline after missing up to a quarter of City’s games this past year because of suspensions.

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