Manchester City are having a tough time of late, dropping out of the top spot in the Premier League and effectively out of contention at eight points back of Manchester United with six to play. Everything seems to be going wrong at once, and in cases like that everyone needs a scapegoat. As befits a divise personality, Mario Balotelli has become that scapegoat.
Simply put, Balotelli was terrible in City's latest failure, a 1-0 loss at Arsenal on Sunday. He made enough questionable fouls to be sent off in the first 20 minutes, and that he lasted 90 minutes before seeing a second yellow card is something of a minor miracle. He deserves a good deal of admonishment for the loss, to be sure.
Yet to turn him into some kind of monster and say he needs to leave the club, as manager Roberto Mancini did in his post-match interview, is something else entirely. From Dominic Fifield for The Guardian:
"Mario should have been sent off after 20 minutes," said the City manager. "I've finished my words for him. I've finished. I love him as a guy, as a player. I know him. He's not a bad guy and is a fantastic player. But, at this moment, I'm very sorry for him because he continues to lose his talent, his quality.
"I hope, for him, he can understand that he's in a bad way for his future. And he can change his behaviour in the future. But I'm finished. We have six games left and he will not play. It's not sure he'll [be available] because he could get a three- or four-game ban. Now, I need to be sure that I have always 11 players on the pitch. With Mario, it's always a big risk. Every time we risk one [man] being sent off, even if he can also score in the last minute."
Mancini admitted that José Mourinho's assessment of the striker as "unmanageable" may prove prophetic, with team-mates visibly frustrated as Balotelli's second foul on Bacary Sagna prompted the late red. City were quick to distance themselves from suggestions that there had been a physical confrontation between players in the dressing room after the game, but when asked whether he would now seek to sell a player who has scored 17 times this season, Mancini said: "Probably." He was reportedly more explicit on Italian television, saying: "We will sell him."
There are plenty of reasonable arguments to be made that Balotelli should be sold—perhaps back to an Italian club, where his personality might be better accommodated. However, the idea that Balotelli is some kind of savage with no suitable use on the pitch is just flatly wrong. Although no one wants to admit it, Balotelli was a major reason for the Citizens' salvaging a point against Sunderland last weekend. His season hasn't been a downward spiral, but a succession of peaks and valleys, sometimes in the same match. If an FA ban weren't coming, and Mancini saw fit to play him, Balotelli could very well make the sort of plays that have made him indispensable to the lineup for much of the season. Balotelli might have screwed up during Sunday's game, but if Mancini thought Balotelli was an impossible to control it hasn't bothered him until very recently.
Seeing Balotelli's antics—a neutral term, in this case—as the root of City's demise casts a practical problem as a moral one. The essential Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net analyzed the loss primarily in terms of losing the midfield battle and Mancini's putting his strikers in unfavored spots. Balotelli is not spoken of kindly, but he's also a minor player in the drama.
As my colleague Fredorrarci said earlier today, using Balotelli or any athlete to prove a point we've already decided upon does the man no favors. Balotelli can be bad or good, but he doesn't have to be a devil or misunderstood angel. There's a world in between the two.