CARSON, Calif. — With Mario Balotelli, you always learn to live with the unpredictable. The 20-year-old Italian striker’s talent has always been clear. But his ability to make poor choices in key moments has also followed him around in his young career.
And his timing in angering his manager on Sunday against the LA Galaxy couldn’t have been worse as Manchester City are likely making big changes to their forward corps.
In the 28th minute, Balotelli (above, right) found himself one-on-one with Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders. But instead of simply depositing the ball into the goal, which he is more than capable of doing, Balotelli tried a little razzle-dazzle. He turned, flicked the ball to his back heel and tried an audacious schoolyard move that drifted harmlessly wide of the goal.
Manager Roberto Mancini had seen enough of that — despite Balotelli’s penalty kick eight minutes earlier that put City up 1-0 — and yanked his prodigal forward in the 32nd minute. City went on to prevail on penalty kicks after LA equalized in the second half. But for Mancini, the choice was immediate.
“We need to be always professional, always serious,” Mancini explained in the postgame press conference, “and in this case, Mario wasn’t professional and for this, I [made the] change.”
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But it got worse from there. Balotelli, livid with the substitution, yelled at his manager, appeared to even extend an obscene gesture and even threw a water bottle onto the pitch in a childish tantrum. Mancini gestured for Balotelli to hit the showers, but the young striker angrily took a seat at the end of the bench. He did not re-enter from the changing room after halftime.
For Mancini, the substitution was punishment enough for his young protégé, whom he originally helped bring to Inter Milan during his time as manager there.
“Mario is young,” Mancini said. “Sometimes he make a mistake, but I am there because I want to help him always. ... For me, it’s finished now. I hope that for Mario’s sake, I hope it is a lesson and I hope he can understand this.”
Balotelli has a history of disciplinary issues both on the field and off. He had more than a dozen bookings last season — his first at Man. City — and was has been involved in training-ground scuffles with teammates throughout his career, as well as occasional confrontations with fans.
His talent is not in question, as his electrifying skills have dazzled fans both at Inter and since transferring to City last summer. Balotelli was named Man of the Match in this past spring’s FA Cup final, helping Manchester City win their first trophy in 35 years. But his teammates on Sunday were reminded of his incendiary nature.
“Everybody’s seen it, it wasn’t a great action and the coach took a decision to take him off," said midfielder Nigel de Jong (pictured above at left). "That’s a decision that’s been made and that’s a statement that the group is behind him. If you get in front of the goal, you have to score. He knows that as well. I hope he learns from this moment and that we continue to be stronger as a group.”
City are dealing with the likelihood that captain Carlos Tévez could leave Manchester, while Mancini confirmed Sunday that the club is deep in negotiations with Atlético Madrid star Sergio Agüero and hopes a deal can be reached this week. That leaves Balotelli as the incumbent striker during a critical period where he must show some maturity.
There was some question as to whether Balotelli thought he was offside during the blown backheel incident on Sunday, which would have explained why he showboated. But Mancini was quick to laugh that off, too.
“Mario is Italian,” the Italian manager said, before conferring with his interpreter for the right phrase in English. “He’s ‘street-wise.’ Mario knows that he wasn’t offside.”