Mourinho backs Mancini to bring out the best in Balotelli

Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho has spoken fondly of his time coaching Mario Balotelli at Inter, labelling the Manchester City youngster a “funny kid”.

The Portuguese endured a fractious relationship with the mercurial striker during his time in Italy, and often argued with the Italian international over his off-field behaviour.

However, Mourinho has moved to play down any suggestions of a rift between himself and Balotelli, insisting that he found the player amusing.

“I could write a book of 200 pages of my two years at Inter with Mario, but the book would be not a drama, the book would be a comedy because he is funny, he’s a funny kid,” he told CNN.

Mourinho went on to suggest that City boss Roberto Mancini is the perfect mentor for the young striker, as his long relationship with Balotelli makes him ideally suited to get the best out of him.

Indeed, Mourinho warned the 22-year-old that if he fails under the Italian boss, then he is unlikely to ever reach his full potential as a player.

“Mancini was his first coach as a professional, so before me,” he added. “So for sure the same feeling I have, Mancini has probably even more than Mario.

“You know, Mario was 18 with Mancini at Inter and he was 20 with me. Now, he should be 22, so the natural tendency is that he grows up and becomes the player that the talent he has.

“I’ve no contact with Mario in this moment, but I hope so. I hope so, and Roberto knows him well, speaks the same language, knows him since he was a kid, so if he doesn’t do it with Roberto, it will be difficult to do with another one, but I hope so because he’s a talent.”

Edin to the front of the queue: Dzeko delivers again to stake claim for regular starting spot

By Jay Jaffa

On Saturday at a sun-drenched Craven Cottage, Edin Dzeko was given just four minutes to make a difference in a game Manchester City had to win following Roberto Mancini’s declaration that his team “will win the title” and took his once chance with the assurance of a man in form. His reaction saw him briefly acknowledge the away fans before curving his celebratory run in the direction of his manager.

Whether this was an “I told you so,” is neither here nor there, the Sarajevo-born hit-man had delivered a deserved three points on a silver platter for the Premier League champions.

They say the second year is the hardest and for City’s title defence, this is proving the case, but while Mancini’s strikers flit between form and function, Dzeko highlighted his worth to his manager in the briefest of cameos.

Only 12 months ago, Dzeko was wowing Premier League audiences with his quadruple at Tottenham – twice as many as he managed in his first six months in England – as he went on to knock goals in at a rate of one every two games, contributing to the club’s crowning moment last May.

Yet, his stock fell over the summer period – as much down to the redemption of Carlos Tevez as it was his own doing, as he stumbled to the finish line with one paltry goal in 11 games. At 26, he still has his best years ahead of him but summer rumours suggested that could lie elsewhere. He was linked with a summer move to Juventus following a period that saw his star wane in the blue side of Manchester amid dissenting voices suggesting, among other concerns, that his first touch was not at the level required.

But he is one star of many and the £27 million man has had to adjust his game dramatically since moving from the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Where at Wolfsburg he could rely on a regular partnership with the Brazilian striker Grafite and service from compatriot Zvjezdan Misimovic and largely act as a finisher, at City Dzeko has been asked to be more involved on the floor, in the build-up and in the creation of chances.

The Bosnian has only really had a prolonged spell up front in the absence of others but now with everyone fit and available appears to be carving his niche as an impact, Plan B striker.

Dzeko may have only played 489 minutes (180 for Bosnia) but he has scored eight goals for club and country in ten games this season, more than Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli combined. His habit of scoring crucial goals is fast-turning him into a key figure and were it not for the incredible late comeback by Real Madrid, he would be regaled for years as the man whose goal claimed victory at the Bernabeu.

Mancini has kept coy on the difficulty of keeping four strikers happy. Understandably he is reluctant to unsettle Tevez again, and has to juggle the weekly malcontent of Mario Balotelli. His star pupil Sergio Aguero is both too good to drop and too classy to complain, while Dzeko appears happy to show his boss what he can do at any given opportunity. He admitted after the Fulham game that he “wasn’t happy” with the situation but if he keeps grabbing the headlines, will it matter?

Though City were thankful for John-Arne Riise’s inexplicable attempt at a clearance just prior to Dzeko’s match-winner, the goal itself was a microcosm of what had come before and what could now be if the Bosnian is used correctly.

For all City’s dominance and David Silva’s invention, they found a compact, stubborn Fulham defence able to snuff out any danger. That was until the Bosnian entered play on the 86th minute and drastically changed the threat his team possessed.

No sooner had Dzeko been introduced, than Gael Clichy lofted a cross into the box – the first of the game. The French full-back spent the majority of the second-half in the left-wing position but every cross was low and easily cut out. Suddenly, with Dzeko (and to a lesser extent, Balotelli) on the pitch, he had a target to aim for and it was little surprise that Riise and Co. struggled to adapt to the change in attack.

As a broader point, Mancini’s rotation worked well against Fulham, in what was undoubtedly their best performance of the campaign. In a fair and just world, Joe Hart would not have picked the ball out of his net after one of the poorest penalty decisions of the season, and City would have left west London with a clean sheet – their first of the season. Matija Nastasic looks assured beyond his years and Javi Garcia passed with authority.

But the narrative hinges on Dzeko’s impact and may well prove to be the turning point in a season yet to truly define the leading contenders. Aside from Chelsea, who secured a big result at Arsenal, giving them a distinct three-point lead at the top, City’s rivals have yet to truly show their hands.

And with Dzeko now at the front of the queue, all eyes turn to watch Mancini’s next move – City have a gruelling schedule and the Italian will be thankful for his rich collection of strikers but the key will be how he uses them. If Mancini continues to coax the best out of Dzeko the second title he forewarned may not be as tricky as he anticipates.

Follow Jay Jaffa on 

Ronaldo & Balotelli star in's football Team Europe in honour of Ryder Cup

By Peter Staunton

I don’t like golf. It is, in my opinion, anodyne, bordering on the pointless. Furthermore, I hate the Ryder Cup. I pity the players and their cringe-inducing attempts at team spirit and humour. Two attributes which are by and large anathema to successful golf. “A boring game for boring people,” according to George Carlin.

Nonetheless, every two years, we are cowed into a reverential hush when the Europeans are on the tee and golf fans pretend to support even that Belgian lad. This is juxtaposed with the yeehaa’d Americana excreted by that shower across the pond. We are supposed to care. I don’t. Football is much better; it takes up less room for a start. Golf, I simply cannot abide. “An arrogant, elitist game that takes up too much room,” says Carlin, and I can’t but agree.

Nonetheless the ‘dream team’ element, present in the Ryder Cup, I like.

The best of the best, pitting their skills against the best of the best, is quasi-Olympian. In the context of football, it brings forth thoughts of fantasy XIs, the likes of which were created by the dozen at school in a copybook. And a European team, and who would fill it, now that is a concept I can get behind.

Europe’s Ryder Cup team comprises, essentially, the 10 best-ranked European golfers from the past year. That lot are joined by two captain’s picks.

The Ryder Cup captain is a non-playing player, in effect, but – for our football team purposes here – I will pick him as manager. The captain’s pick becomes my pick because, as things stand, Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t interested in my game. The captain’s pick will therefore take his place on my European dream team.

The other 10 are the top-ranked European players from the 50 series, which rewarded the best 50 players of the season past. For once, and handily, this year’s edition conjured a good spread positionally among the top-ranked Euroboys.

So here it is. The European dream team to do hypothetical battle against Jurgen Klinsmann’s burger-eating, monster truck-loving, fanny pack-wearing sons-of-a-gun.

Between the sticks, this year, there is no alternative to Iker Casillas. Second in the 50, Casillas enjoyed a trophy-laden season with Real Madrid and Spain although his ability to catch crosses and push shots around the post remains dubious. He would not be my first pick for the goalkeeping position but he qualified. Could be worse. I could have been lumbered with Wojciech Szczesny.

The defence features, at right back, Casillas’ club-mate Sergio Ramos. Recently, the superbly-haired defender has had a spat with Jose Mourinho, who seems to finally have discovered what a liability he can be, but there is no doubt that last season and through the Euros, he was ‘mint’.

At left-back comes English national treasure, Ashley Cole. The Chelsea man takes a disgusting amount of grief from a public who do not know how lucky they are to have Cole play in front of them. Another massively consistent season for the Blues finally brought Champions League glory for Cole after two final disappointments. Laughably clear of any other contenders for the best left-back in the world slot.

In the centre is Vincent Kompany, who led plucky underdogs Manchester City to their first league title since 1968. He is a beast; just look at him. Physically as impressive a defender as there is in the world, Kompany shrugged off most strikers he faced last season while also chipping in with a vital goal or two. A key element of club and country now, delivering on his huge potential.

Joining him is the laid-back stud muffin, Mats Hummels. Despite the considerate demeanour of the sensitive one in American rom-com, Hummels was meaner than a junkyard dog in defence last season. His ball-playing capabilities and commanding presence helped Dortmund to the double in Germany. He is the captain’s pick, too, seeing off stern competition from the rapidly-improving Pepe. Can’t have too many Madrid players you see.

Andrea Pirlo occupies a slot in centre midfield. Of course he does. Pirlo should be in every select XI. He  passes the ball like he is charming a snake from a basket and experienced the most successful comeback since Jesus Christ after joining Juventus from Milan. He has got the beard to rival the Chosen One now too. Played like a man in a boys’ game for Italy at the Euros. Imperious.

Swift, diminutive ball-magnet Xavi Hernandez joins Pirlo in a midfield that more says ‘bridal suite’ than ‘engine room’. Barcelona were not massively successful last season, just the four trophies, but Xavi was again key to their endeavours. He quite literally tore Italy a new one in the Euros too for Spain. Passed to death.

Also flitting around the central third is Andres Iniesta. Slight, unassuming, you would barely know he was there until he popped up with a goal. He did not enjoy the best of seasons for Barca but excelled for Spain at the Euros. He was man of the match in three out of their six games and also took home the Player of the Tournament gong.

Mesut Ozil takes the first attacking slot. He has not been in the best of form so far this season as he has been too busy clubbing or else resenting the presence of fellow alice-band enthusiast Luka Modric. There can be no denying his effect last term though; he delivered 24 assists for the Blancos. Has a clause in his contract that dictates he plays only an hour of every match.

Joining Ozil is the domineering, the phenomenal, the little bit sad, Cristiano Ronaldo. Quite simply, the best player in the world. He can shoot off either foot, head the ball, chase back, is quick and indefatigable. Without him Real Madrid would be Atletico and Portugal would be Ireland. I love him and he would beat Messi in a fight.

And rounding off the XI is that timid little mouse Mario Balotelli. I would never have chosen him for this team in a million years but he has made it in through the Goal 50 so I am stuck with him. A good player on his day, no doubt, and his two goals against Germany in the Euros were excellent. But I honestly would prefer Danny Welbeck. I fully expect him to cost my team big time.

So that is the XI for Team Europe to take on USA in some sort of Ryder Cup/football hybrid. I think we have close to the best team in the world there and Sir Alex is just the man to whip it into shape. And to see them in action? What a thrill it would be.

But curb your excitement. Back to the golf we must go; Dorko in the plaid knickers is going to hit it again.

Mancini: Balotelli can smoke as long as he scores goals

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has told Mario Balotelli he can continue to smoke as long as he scores goals for the club.

Mancini is believed to have a strong dislike of the player’s habit but has given up trying to make him stop.

The Italian boss insists his compatriot’s tobacco habit is not his problem, but feels it would be better if he quit smoking.

“It’s not my problem,” Mancini told The Mirror.

“If Mario wants to smoke, it’s his problem. But if he wants my opinion, it is better that he quits.

“But if he smokes 10 cigarettes a day and scores two goals every game, then that’s better.”

Balotelli sat in the stands during Manchester City’s midweek trip to Spain to face Real Madrid in the Champions League, despite being fit and travelling with the squad to the Spanish capital.

However, Mancini denied claims that Balotelli sat out the fixture because of a breach of club discipline relating to a late night out last week.

It was just a matter of squad rotation in a congested month in the fixture list, according to the 47-year-old.

“Mario was upset, but that’s normal. I don’t think there can be a player who doesn’t play and is happy,” he continued.

“But when you have five games in 20 days, like we do, you should pay attention to the consequences.

“It’s better that one important player, like Mario or James Milner, goes to the stand. When you have a full squad it’s very difficult.

“If you want to go through in all competitions, it is important that you have players who understand this situation.”

Mancini denies fresh Balotelli bust-up ahead of Arsenal clash

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has rebuffed reports he has fallen out with Mario Balotelli ahead of Sunday’s Premier League encounter with Arsenal.

The 22-year-old was omitted for the dramatic 3-2 Champions League defeat against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, sparking rumours of another bust-up with the manager.

But, Mancini refuted the suggestions, claiming it was simply a case of rotation and that the Italy international will be fit to play against Arsenal.

“This story is totally false,” Mancini told Sky Sports.

“Mario went in the stand only because we started to play with Carlos Tevez in attack and we couldn’t have three strikers on the bench.

“There has been no argument, and no row. Absolutely not.”

Meanwhile, the 47-year-old confirmed that Samir Nasri is a major doubt to face his former club, after the France midfielder was taken off during Tuesday’s game with a hamstring problem.

The France international’s injury is not as serious as first feared, but the Blues’ boss admits a comeback on Sunday is very unlikely.

“I do not think he will be ready for Sunday,” Mancini added. “We will try but it is difficult.

“I hope he will be OK for next week.”