The marquee erected on the lawns of Manchester City's training ground was the type usually found outside a stately home for a summer wedding. On this occasion, there was not a great deal of celebration in the air. "We don't have a lot of chance," said the man dressed for business on the top table, with a whistle hanging round his neck and a look of weary resignation when the conversation turned from Cristiano Ronaldo to Mario Balotelli.
Roberto Mancini has never delivered a sermon about Balotelli quite like the one in response to a Spanish journalist asking what it was like to work with such a player. In the past, it has always been short, clipped criticisms, often leaving his audience to join up the dots. This time it was from the heart: an impassioned speech about the dangers when a player is not dedicated enough to his profession, and how galling he would find it if this were to be the story of Balotelli's life.
Yet the truth – and it is a truth that does not reflect well on the player – is that the permanent state of fuss around Balotelli feels like little more than a side issue when Real Madrid are in town, City have another stab at the Champions League and there are bigger stories waiting to be shaped.
The same could also be said of Ronaldo's return to Manchester, even if a player who has accumulated 124 goals in 113 Primera División fixtures has to be taken more seriously than one, in Balotelli's case, who is averaging one start a month in his own league throughout 2012.
For City, though, the backdrop to this match is bigger than that: it is about the club's reputation in the Champions League. They have made a pig's ear of it so far and now they need to shift the perception of a side that finds the competition strangely overwhelming. That, after all, might be the best they can hope for. Mancini had said after the defeat against Ajax that City needed a "miracle". When they drew the following match against the same opposition he said it was "finished".
Group D, four games in, still has enough permutations to give you a migraine – not least the possibility that all four teams could finish on eight points – but the arithmetic for City, with only two points, is pretty straightforward. They have to beat José Mourinho's team and, after that, they would have to go to Germany and win at Borussia Dortmund, currently top of the group. Even then, it relies heavily on other results. "I don't think Real Madrid and Dortmund will fail to beat Ajax," Mancini said matter-of-factly. In which case City would be out and Mancini under considerable pressure to ensure they hold off Manchester United to prevent the season being categorised as a full-on disappointment, with all the scrutiny that brings.
For now, it is hypothetical and City can be mildly encouraged by the fact Madrid have not had everything their way so far this season. Mourinho's team are third in Spain, eight points behind Barcelona and five behind Atlético Madrid. They lost 2-1 in their first meeting with Dortmund and it needed an 89th-minute equaliser to prevent a repeat of that scoreline when the teams renewed acquaintances at the Bernabéu.
Real are, all the same , seasoned Champions League opponents. "In my opinion, the best team in the world with Barça," Mancini said. "When you play against Real, you play against 11 top players. Every game they can score three or four goals. Ronaldo, Benzema, Di María, Ozil, Xabi Alonso …" But mostly Ronaldo. "A player who scores one or two goals every game is an incredible player," as Mancini put it.
Ronaldo, in short, is the player City wanted Balotelli to be. "Mario, outside the pitch, is a fantastic guy, " Mancini continued. "Sometimes, he doesn't understand [his] job and how his job is important for his life. I hope, for him, he can understand this quickly. He is 22, but life can go quickly. I hope he can improve because, as a player, he could be like Cristiano and [Lionel] Messi – if he understands that to be like this you should work hard, your mind should be always on your job, not on things that are not important. I am very sorry for him for this. He has everything to be one of the best players in the world but it is not easy to work with him every day because, if you are a manager, you should manage 22 players (not one). This is not easy sometimes but I hope he can change his mind."
Balotelli is struggling to make this one with a back injury, whereas Gaël Clichy is almost certain to miss out because of an ankle problem. "We are in a good moment," Mancini said, referring to City's rise to the top of the Premier League. If they are to be removed from the Champions League, they will want to go out via the front door, with a semblance of dignity.