The ballad of Roberto and Mario - Mancini and Balotelli ready for Azzurri reunion
Roberto Mancini's trials and tribulations with protege Mario Balotelli entertained and exasperated at Manchester City. Can they save Italy?
After all the flashpoints and controversies, the trophies won and red cards, the impassioned defences and public rows, Roberto Mancini wore a weary and rueful expression.
Speaking to BBC Match of the Day following Manchester City's frustrating 0-0 draw at Queens Park Rangers in January 2013 – a result that pushed a hard-earned Premier League title further back in the direction of Manchester United – the Italian confirmed his compatriot Mario Balotelli would join AC Milan on an initial loan.
"I think that this is a good chance for Mario to come back in Italy. I am very sorry because we love him as a guy and a player," Mancini said.
"We are so sad in this moment. I think he will miss me… not only me, but all the journalists. For you he was very important."
The quip tagged on at the end – mirth never was or is far away from Balotelli – could not shift the sense of sorrow and sadness.
Mancini had made this lavishly gifted performer, only ever a couple of flicks and tricks away from self-destruction, his project. A few weeks earlier, the man who coached a teenage Balotelli at Inter, said he would give the striker "another 100 chances" following an infamous training group bust-up. Suddenly, it was all over.
Well, it was until Tuesday, when Mancini faced his first news conference as Italy head coach.
"I hope that I can be the person who brings Italy back to a significant triumph," he said, before adding to the surprise of no one in particular, "I will certainly speak with Balotelli also."
WHY ALWAYS HIM?
What is striking about Mancini's relationship with Balotelli, especially when considering the 53-year-old's reputation as a tough task master to whom few players warm, is the enduring affection from the older man.
Part coach, part surrogate father, he's never truly cross; just disappointed.
In 2016, when telling L'Equipe about his unseemly grapple with Balotelli on City's training pitches before that switch to Milan, Mancini ended up repeatedly calling him a "phenomenon".
He was referring to the 6-1 derby win at Manchester United, where Balotelli shrugged off a fireworks mishap from the night before in his own bathroom to coolly give City the lead, unveiled an iconic t-shirt slogan and spearheaded a defining triumph. He forced Jonny Evans into a red card and opened the floodgates with City's second.
That Old Trafford lunchtime, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about and why it was maybe worth tolerating the accompanying madness. All the Balotelli hallmarks were there – the intelligent, pacey movement; the power and strength; the deft touches and the precise, no-backlift finishing. All wrapped up in a non-negotiable layer of mischief.
"That day, it was like Mario was grown up, an adult, and all the others were children," Mancini said.
There were other fleeting and irresistible glimpses of what the man-child might look like as a fully-fledged grown up. Take when Balotelli demolished Germany almost single-handedly in the semi-final of Euro 2012, or his impeccable man-of the-match showing in an FA Cup semi-final win over United a year earlier.
Leading the line in the injury absence of Carlos Tevez, Balotelli played like an esteemed veteran in a 1-0 win. Then, at full-time, he decided to entertain himself away from his celebrating team-mates by winding up Rio Ferdinand. Mancini pulled him away from the fracas.
Mancini and Balotelli were a double act City fans adored. Mancini because of where he promised to take them and Balotelli because he offered a brilliantly surreal reminder of the club's days as a freewheeling circus at Maine Road.
WHY HIM NOW?
Somewhere along the way, during a sapping spell at Liverpool and underwhelming second coming at Milan, the fun stopped. Manchester memories of wads of cash, piles of parking tickets and shopping trips for a trampoline and a Scalextric were replaced by more prosaic concerns.
Amid persistent injuries, lost form and rock-bottom confidence, Balotelli even started missing penalties. His two seasons at Nice under the shrewd Lucien Favre have been restorative and pretty prolific, with 43 goals, but the 27-year-old has not played international football since the 2014 World Cup. A rumoured move to Marseille could light the fuse on the fireworks again, for better or worse.
Mancini's own return to San Siro as Inter boss also failed to recapture former glories. The 2011-12 Premier League with City remains his most recent top-flight crown, despite taking on jobs seemingly designed for such a feat at Galatasaray and Zenit.
Both men are a little older, maybe wiser through failure and a little less cocksure. That much gives them plenty of common ground with the once-great Azzurri, who Mancini inherits as they sit out a first World Cup since 1958.
Circumstances no one in Italian football would have wished for now throw together two old friends with the capacity to spark a move back towards the glory days. They could just as easily end up jabbing at each other in the dugout after Balotelli misses an elaborate pirouette backheel in the forthcoming friendly against Saudi Arabia.
Unlike most romantic comedy sequels, this is one you cannot take your eyes off.