KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS —- For years Roberto Mancini believed he commanded the essential magic wand to transform Mario Balotelli from wayward problem child to consistent, self-controlled superstar.
At Internazionale it had been Mancini who overruled the warnings of the youth coaching staff and insisted on promoting the teenage Balotelli to the Serie A squad.
Next it was Mancini who insisted on Manchester City buying Super Mario to spark an era in which events off the pitch made almost as many headlines as events on it.
Eventually Mancini was replaced and Balotelli sold, only to reappear now back in the Premier League at Liverpool for whom he was horribly out of touch in a lucky 3-2 win at QPR. If Balotelli cannot raise his game against Real Madrid on Wednesday in the Champions League he may surely be leaning on the swing door out of the Last Chance Saloon.
Significantly, even Mancini has lost hope of any coach, not even him now, conjuring a winning focus out of Balotelli’s complex psyche.
Mancini, inbetween jobs after leaving Galatasaray in June, says: “Mario Balotelli is a really good guy, he’s fantastic on and off the pitch. But he’s young so sometimes he can make mistakes like all of us when we were young.
“I think now that the only person who can help him is himself. All the people around him will work to help him, I’m sure, but Mario has to understand that only if he works hard and his brain is working properly can he change the situation in which he finds himself.
“Believe me, he is a big talent. I sent him a text when he made his transfer and I said: ‘Mario, only you can help Mario Balotelli’ . . . because I hope he can show at last when he can do out on the pitch and not away from the pitch.
“This chance at Liverpool is a Very Big Chance for him.”**
Adjusting from Italian to English football is not easy, as Mancini notes in recalling the month he spent at Leicester City in early 2001 under his old coaching mentor Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Mancini says: “In the beginning it was really difficult because as soon as I controlled the ball a defender took my legs away.
“The game is very quick in England compared with Italy. It took me a month to learn it but then I had an offer to start as a coach with Fiorentina.
“Still, I think English football in the last 10 years means the best league championship in Europe. To have a good experience in the Premier League was always a target for me.”
The opportunity arose at the start of 2010 when Manchester City brought in Mancini in to replace Mark Hughes, with plenty of money to invest but an expectation to match.
Mancini had just spent a remarkably long four years at Internazionale which was a intensive, testing task in itself but City was something else.
“It really was a very tough job,” he says. “Of course I was very happy to arrive in the Premier League and have that great experience though the first six months were really difficult: the club had spent a lot of money on new players and when I took over they were seventh or eighth but the club wanted us to reach the Champions League places.
“In the end we reached fifth position, then third and then the next year we won the championship.”
The drama of that Premier title win established Mancini’s status in City’s history, never mind the messy fall-out with Carlos Tevez and the later, erratic tactical and personnel choices which led, ultimately, to his departure.
Recalling May 13, 2012, Mancini says: “It should be possible to make a Hollywood film about that championship. We dominated the league until March and then United started playing better than us and we lost one or two games in a row and were suddenly eight points behind.
“My players were under big pressure so, six games before the end of the season and though I still believed we could do it I said in public that ‘it’s finished.’ I wanted to take the pressure off the team so they could relax and play their football.”
So to the last game and the decisive stoppage-time drama when City recovered from 2-1 down to level and then win 3-2 with goals from Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero, the assist delivered by the inevitable Balotelli.
“The last four minutes were incredible,” says Mancini. “It seemed to be slipped away but I still believed we couldn’t lose this championship.
“Then it was 2-2 in the last moment and QPR, who had been playing for relegation knew the other games were over, so they lost the ball and we scored and it was 3-2. Our title!
“You know, this could happen only in England. In Italy it is impossible to score two goals in one minute; in England everything is possible.”
Winning the Premier League is one thing, achieving it again and again is something else entirely and for this Mancini did not possess the key.
Recalling next season’s slip to second, albeit a decisive 11 points adrift of United, he says: “Every manager can make mistakes. This is normal. I have no regrets because I think we did a good job in the three years I was there.
“You know, we could have won three Premier Leagues if we had had Robin Van Persie because he was always our first transfer target, of all the players we signed.
“I thought was had closed a contract with him in the April of 2012 but then, in July, he was playing for United.”
The rest, of course, in football history.
** Roberto Mancini was speaking during the Aspire Global Summit at the Pavilion Cambon, Paris.