On Sunday evening Manchester City faced Arsenal in a game that, pretty much, could see their title chances either fade away or give hope of a possible resurgence.
With rivals United drifting to a 2-0 win over QPR earlier, victory at the Emirates was needed. A Mikel Arteta strike soon put paid to that, though, leaving City eight points behind United with six games to go. Mathematically possible, sure, but – in reality – it is hard to see City putting in a convincing performance at the minute, never mind United slipping up at this late stage.
The fluidity and sheer power seen in the first half of the season has completely evaporated for City. And the man that has, slowly but surely, taken most of the flak for this demise is the man who was so revered just months ago, the ‘character’ of the Premier League, the ‘enigma’.
English football, it seems, has finally turned on Mario Balotelli.
It’s been coming. As stupid hats and toilet trips turned into car crashes and hookers, Balotelli’s actions became less innocent, more idiotic. All of a sudden, Balotelli wasn’t the lovable rogue – he’s disruptive, a trouble-maker. He’s the problem.
Of course, he’s not the problem at Manchester City, just one of many. There were players who put in worse performances against Arsenal, but some dangerous tackles, petulant play and a general futility up front are all more high-profile than the complete ineffectiveness of James Milner, or a clearly-exhausted performance from Sergio Aguero.
The second-half collapse of City’s season is down to many, many things but Balotelli is the easy target. When winning, a maverick’s fun; when losing, he’s a detriment to the side.
Of course, Balotelli has had poor stages of his Manchester City career and that will impact on his team, but the way in which he’s being used as a scapegoat seems a little harsh on the young Italian.
Yet, the 21-year-old has been playing football long enough now to know that going into a tackle with studs showing is stupid and doing it in a vital game such as Sunday’s is certainly that, to an almost infuriating level. It is hardly surprising, then, that Mancini feels he can’t trust Balotelli, and now seems ready to cut ties with the man he has placed so much faith in both in Manchester and Milan.
The dangerous tackles are nothing new and the free-kick blusters and common on-pitch arrogance (or ‘swagga’ as it’s called when you’re winning) seem to have all taken their toll now. Surely the negatives largely outweigh the positives for Balotelli now, given that the positives seem so intermittent in occurring?
Even the things that originally gave Balotelli cult-hero status have been dismissed as silly rumours. In the BBC interview with Mario, it turned out that the media – whomever their sources may be – fed the nation false stories on their latest headline-commanding Premier League footballer, while Balotelli came across as reserved and, really, rather shy.
And that’s the thing, in interviews Balotelli seems like a nice, affable chap. Entirely innocent although obviously with a cheeky side and an expert in not giving a fuck. Hardly arrogant, anyway.
He talks of working towards being the best rather than already being there, he’s reluctant to talk about his youth and, let’s not forget, this is a man just out of his teens who’s forced to live his life under the spotlight of country that expects the very best of the celebrity youth. He’s immediately likeable, then.
But then we get to the business end of the season. Football likes its mavericks but they have to turn it on when needed. They have to be professional when it really matters. You mess about on our terms, basically.
Interruptions of Inter Milan press conferences are as bizarre as they are bewildering and one wonders whether Balotelli misses home, and the continual assertion that he’s at Manchester City because of Mancini rather than any great affiliation with the club hints at a possible exit in the summer if Mancini has had enough, or even if Mancini departs Eastlands.
Will the Premier League miss Balotelli? The striker does bring the odd chuckle, a smile to the face of fans bored by banal footballers who make up a game that is meant to be entertaining.
But a man who infuriates his own manager and fans will not last long, no matter how many titters he delivers on a weekly basis.
At the start he was loved because it was promised that he would come good, that there was good in there. Now, with the discipline continually slipping and the form so erratic, the English seem to have finally worked out Mario Balotelli. And they, overall, don’t like what they see.