For many Manchester City supporters, their patience appears to have been exhausted. It was fun while it lasted, Mario, but let's go our separate ways. Such is the Balotelli narrative that the debate is framed in such a way as to see his City career as a series of incidents and accidents. "Seems like Balotelli has turned the corner from loveable rogue to nuisance for most City fans. What was the last straw?" asked Manchester Evening News reporter Rob Dawson on Twitter this week.
So many to choose from. Some of them humorous. Others merely infuriating. The altercation that would most obviously fit the notion of a 'last straw' would be the training ground tussle with manager Roberto Mancini earlier this month. But like much of the headlines Balotelli has generated since his arrival in England in 2010, even this had more froth than substance. It wasn't even obvious the player was to blame.
No. Despite the fascination of the media and the appetite of the public for the latest anecdote, the mundane truth for Balotelli is that his future is likely to be dictated by his performances on the field. And this season, they simply haven't been very good.
Again, it's not about the drama. That came last season against Arsenal when Balotelli was red carded for an act of stupidity as City's title race looked to be run. "Arsenal away seems to be a tipping point for a few," replied one City fan to Dawson's Twitter question. And Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp articulates why.
"He was sent off for Manchester City at Arsenal and betrayed his team-mates with an outrageous act of petulance," explained Redknapp in the Daily Mail. "If Manchester United had gone about their business in their normal professional manner, that would have been the single most significant moment that cost Manchester City the title. Instead, he is a champion - thanks mainly to the efforts of his team-mates while he was suspended."
It's a harsh assessment fuelled more by the obvious frustrations that watching Balotelli can bring rather than rooted in fact. In truth, the striker's sending off didn't even cost City a point let alone the title. It came in the final minute at the Emirates Stadium with his team already losing to a Mikel Arteta strike at the other end of the pitch. A fact that - like Faustino Asprilla's magical moments for Newcastle back in 1996 - threatened to become lost in the wider narrative.
Except Balotelli played his part in changing his own story. It was the Italian who provided the assist for Sergio Aguero in the final moment of that game against QPR. He contributed. Just as he contributed for much of the title-winning campaign. Certainly more than Carlos Tevez - a man who had effectively gone on strike for six months of that season (a far greater transgression than anything Balotelli has done, incidentally).
But the difference right now does not come down to a comparison of off-field misdemeanours. It isn't even because of Tevez's more overt hustle and bustle, although that undoubtedly engenders more supporter sympathy. The key contrast is that Tevez has seven Premier League goals this season. Sergio Aguero has eight and Edin Dzeko 10.
Balotelli has found the net just once. And that's the only currency that matters for Mario.
|Premier League 2011/12 best mins per goal (mins 10 goals)|
|Player||Minutes Played||Goals||Mins per goal|
|van Persie, Robin||3334||30||111|
When he mucked about with a bib back in March 2011, he'd scored in two of his last three games. When he scuffled with United players at Wembley later that year, City had just reached the FA Cup final. And through all the tribulations of last season, Balotelli was firing in the goals with more consistency than his detractors would wish to give him credit for.
For all the hype, Balotelli delivered last season and the 22-year-old deserved his medal. Of Premier League players with 10 goals or more, only Papiss Cisse with his astonishing hot streak had a better goals-per-minute strike rate than the former Inter man. The antics haven't changed this year. But that goal return has.
This season Balotelli has required 34 shots for his one Premier League goal. To put that into context, Adam Le Fondre has eight goals from his 39 efforts. His shooting accuracy has dropped from a creditable 58 per cent to an appalling 23 per cent. Despite his limited involvement, Balotelli is still just four wayward efforts away from surpassing last season's shots off-target tally. He is in danger of resembling the caricature.
And most worryingly for Mancini, his €22million investment doesn't have the conspicuous work ethic to ride the storm. Not for him the easy applause of scuttling to charge down a keeper's kick. Without the indulgence of manager and supporters alike, Balotelli is a player bereft without goals.
Of course, the narrative will dictate that Manchester City got fed up with the antics. Platitudes stressing the importance of a team ethos and a focused dressing room are inevitably just an AC Milan transfer deal away. But if the history of professional football tells us anything it's that managers - from Mancini to Sir Alex Ferguson - will put up with anything as long as the goals are going in.
It's when they dry up that the sympathy stops. And that is likely to prove the real final straw for Roberto Mancini and the Manchester City supporters.
|Maro Ballotelli in Premier League|
|Minutes On Pitch||1,321||588|
|Mins per goal||102||588|
|Shots On Target||32||6|
|Shots Off Target||23||20|
|Chances created (inc. Assists)||21||8|
|Mins per chance created||63||74|
|Pass Completion %||77%||80%|
|Dribbles & Runs||49||19|
|Dribble Completion %||45%||42%|