Roberto Mancini declared earlier this season that if Mario Balotelli were his son, he would attempt to stop the player from getting into trouble by giving him "a kick up the arse". Now, after newspaper photographs showed the striker leaving a Liverpool strip club at nearly 3am the day before hosting Bolton Wanderers, thereby breaking a club curfew for the second time in a matter of months, the manager suggested it was time to implement a new plan for curbing his compatriot's excesses: "Two kicks up the arse!" he trumpeted.
Mancini was, of course, joking, speaking with the same mixture of amusement and exasperation that Balotelli tends to arouse. But the manager's intention to punish the player was real – and so, after meeting Balotelli yesterday to discuss his latest breach of discipline following a City career that has also included needless red cards and a notorious misadventure with fireworks, the manager is expected to impose the maximum permissible fine on the striker, docking him two weeks' wages. The sanction will come with a warning that if Balotelli does not mend his ways soon, he risks wasting his talent.
"This [fine] is not so much for me and for the squad – it's for him," said Mancini with almost paternal concern for the 21-year-old whom he regards as a loveable rogue but one whose roguishness must nonetheless be reined in. "When you are a professional player you should have a good private life. You can't stay out until after 2am. He needs to understand this. Now he is young but when you are 25-26 it will be different if you don't have a good private life. You can't play at the top level."
Of more immediate concern to Mancini is that Balotelli's waywardness could jeopardise City's title bid. The latest nocturnal excursion particularly angered Mancini because the player had been told the team would be depending on him to perform to his best against Bolton because both Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko needed to rest after gruelling midweek international fixtures, whereas Balotelli was in theory able to relax at home after being omitted from the Italy squad. It is his thoughtlessness that exasperates Mancini most. "I think he does this without malice," said Mancini. "He doesn't think about the game in two days and doesn't think that we've had players playing for their national teams and that all week we prepared this game for him to play as striker because he would be freshest. I understand because he is only 21. But after 100 times I think he should understand what happens around him. Mario stayed on the bench for five or six games at the start of the season because his behaviour was not good. Many times he was in the stands for this reason."
The player's latest indiscretion came just a day after Mancini said that he thought the player had finally seen the light and was now "perfect off the pitch." Mancini pointed out, however, that "I also said that with Mario anything can happen at any time." Yet he made it clear that he is not about to give up on the player. "If you are not patient, you cannot do this job," he said. "What Mario needs is time. When you are young you make mistakes and then comes a moment when you understand."
Although he eventually scored against Bolton, tapping in from close-range after nimble work by Adam Johnson, Balotelli was guilty of missing a slew of chances before that. He was unlucky to hit the post from an acute angle in the fourth minute but should have done better from three subsequent one-on-ones, two of which were saved by Adam Bogdan and one that resulted in a wild shot over the bar. City, whose first goal was struck by Gaël Clichy via a deflection off Gretar Steinsson, were so dominant and Bolton so impotent that Balotelli's profligacy did not matter on this occasion. Mancini knows, however, that in future it might, especially given that the manager anticipates City needing to win all of their remaining league games if they are to be champions for the first time since 1968.
"There are two months left and it will be very hard," he said. "We know that if we are fighting against a top squad in United and if we want to stay at the top we have to win the next 10 games."
Bolton's focus is on the other end of the table and with matches against three relegation rivals over the next month they are preparing for a mighty battle. "We've got to win no matter what now," said their midfielder Darren Pratley. "Owen Coyle's sides are known for good football but if you watch him on the sidelines he doesn't just want pretty football, he wants the lads to get stuck in. It's not as if he wants tippy-tappy stuff. We are going to have to dig in now, stay in the league, then kick on."
Man of the match: Yaya Touré (Manchester City)