LONDON — An old soccer truth is being challenged perhaps more profoundly than ever before by Manchester City’s urbane coach Roberto Mancini in the build up to the new Premier League season.
Not only is he putting the top side of $200 million US of Middle Eastern oil money into the belief that champion teams can be bought rather than created with some patience, he is adding a particularly hazardous twist. He is on the pointing of paying around $60 million for the brilliant but seriously erratic enfant terrible of Italian football, Mario Balotelli.
The striker, who will be 20 in a few days time, has been wading through controversy for much of his infant career.
Born of Ghanaian parents, adopted by an Italian couple, his relationship with former Internazionale coach Jose Mourinho reached its low point when he threw down the famous blue nerazzuri club shirt after the Champions League semi with Barcelona.
Yet, Mancini, despite already owning two strikers of notoriously fragile temperament, Emmanuel Adebayor and Craig Bellamy, is sure that the quicksilver skills of Balotelli can provide his team with the vital momentum to carry City towards their first English title in 42 years — and only the third in their history.
Balotelli is certainly precociously talented but whether he represents a solid investment for a team in dire need of almost instant cohesion, and single-mindedness, is a wide-open question that has brought much skepticism.
Even when the reaction to the move has been positive — as in the case of Mancini’s most serious rival in the new season, coach of reigning champions AC Milan, Carlo Ancelotti — there is a suspicion of mischief.
“He is an outstanding young player,” Ancelotti said this week, “and with him, City can challenge not only for a top-four place and Champions League qualification but also the title. I think the kid is that good.”
Mancini apparently needs little convincing.
“We are trying to strengthen the team all around and I think we have done that with all our new signings,” he said. “But Balotelli has the kind of talent that can round everything off.”
He is also capable of sparking anarchy in his first training session.
So far Mancini’s new signings have represented authentic team and squad strengthening. They include Jerome Boeteng, a conspicuous success in Germany’s impressive World Cup campaign; Yaya Toure, who many felt was under-valued in the Barcelona midfield; Valencia’s accomplished midfielder David Silva and Lazio’s Serbian fullback Aleksander Kolarov.
With Chelsea quiet in the market, and Manchester United pinched by debt, City’s investment, real and potential, is becoming grotesque.
But can it work? Football history sounds some classic cautions. So does Didi Hamann, the former City player who performed a crucial role in helping Liverpool win its fifth European Cup tie in Istanbul five years ago.
“I really don’t agree with what City are doing,” Hamann said. “They changed 10 to 15 players each year and if they keep doing this they are going nowhere. I know the fans love all these new signings but big-names don’t win you titles if you really haven’t got a team.”
The signing of “Super Mario” Balotelli is not likely to soothe the fears of Hamann and all those other hard judges who insist that great teams are fashioned over a few years, piece by piece.
However, he will certainly enliven a season that inevitably is clouded by England’s abysmal performance in the World Cup. Whether City and Mancini will draw any significant benefit is, of course, an entirely different matter.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.