Him again. The one and only Mario Balotelli, of course, enfant terrible turned father-to-be, was back in the spotlight as Manchester City fought to overcome the consequence of their own errors in a desperate effort to maintain their presence in the Champions League, and at the centre of the action as the match ended in controversy.
There was no shortage of head-scratching when the Italian turned up on the Ballon d'Or shortlist last week, alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Were those two semi-final goals against Germany in Warsaw really enough to have secured his nomination? City's fans would probably opt for that prodded pass to Sergio Agüero in the 94th minute against Queens Park Rangers last May, the one that reshaped the modern history of the club, as ample justification. And last night, after coming on as a half-time substitute, he gave further evidence of his ability to change the course of events, even if the result might not be enough to preserve City's interest in the competition.
"Balotelli came in and we had some difficulties in the first 10 minutes," Frank de Boer said. True enough, but the real difficulties came later, when Balotelli rose to flick on a clearance for Agüero to bring the scores level, and in the final seconds when the Ajax defender Ricardo van Rhijn, seemingly in the sightline of a referee's assistant, pulled him down in the goalmouth.
In the midst of City's impassioned protests, Vincent Kompany had to drag an infuriated Balotelli away from the Danish referee. Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini was losing his cool for the second time in two days.
The manager had been entitled to his minor tantrum on Monday, when he allowed himself to become irritated by persistent questioning about his conversations with other clubs during the summer. Just imagine Sir Alex Ferguson's response to such perceived impertinence. But the questions were legitimate, given the Italian's failure to follow the conquest of the Premier League with credible performances on the grander European stage, and they grew more pointed in retrospect as City conceded two early goalson Tuesday night.
On the final whistle Mancini was straight in the referee's face, telling Peter Rasmussen that he had been wrong to disallow Agüero's effort in the 88th minute, after a linesman had flagged Aleksandar Kolarov offside. As he stomped off towards the tunnel, he paused to berate a hapless cameraman whom he deemed to have been following him too closely. It was hard not to see that as the gesture of a man badly distracted by City's inability to make an impact at this level.
Later, once his temper had subsided, he wrote off City's prospects of making further progress in the competition. We remember, of course, that he spent most of the final weeks of last season telling the world that his players had no chance of winning the Premier League, and look what happened there.
Now he added that if his team achieved the miracle of qualifying with victories in their last two matches, then it would obviously be their destiny to go all the way and win the final.
It is a strange paradox that City's Italian manager should appear to have lost control of his defence, now so unreliable at set-pieces that in the closing stages there was a mass sigh of relief whenever Joe Hart succeeded in repelling another of the corner-kicks with which Christian Eriksen had set up Ajax's goals. City's malfunctioning rearguard has kept only three clean sheets in 16 games this season, and was found badly wanting as Siem de Jong twice exploited a criminally negligent failure to get themselves organised.
At least there were signs of wounded pride in City's reaction to a double blow that silenced their supporters. Yaya Touré, who had allowed De Jong to run on and guide an angled header past Hart for the second goal, produced a marvellous piece of chest control followed in the same movement by a falling volley that offered to mitigate the humiliation. And after almost an hour of further anguish, Agüero's deft opportunism presented City with a vision of escape that will probably turn out to have been no more than a mirage.
It would be easy to characterise the match in terms of a Manichaean struggle between two opposing and irreconcilable football philosophies, of a battle between City's demand for success as quickly as possible, at almost any cost, against Ajax's insistence on the good husbandry involved in sourcing their own talent and adhering to a coherent tactical philosophy passed down from one generation to the next. It takes all sorts to make football, however, and no envy of their vast resources was allowed to dim the lustre of the 1950s Real Madrid team or Arrigo Sacchi's Milan.
Sheikh Mansour must be hoping that one day the world will see his club in a similar light. That tends to take time, as Roman Abramovich could tell him, and there must be doubts that Mancini will be around to supervise the final stage of City's emergence as a European superpower. After Ajax's second goal went in, he looked like a man who had glimpsed the gallows. That was not quite the end of the story, but when his anger subsides he will be chastened most of all by the way City's defences were so easily breached.