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Jan 5, 2013

Mystery of Mario yet to be solved

As Mario Balotelli stood on the touchline, preparing to come on, the Manchester City supporters rose to give a standing ovation to a great enigma of their attack. Not him, however, because when Edin Dzeko had left the field and the Italian trotted on, there were cheers and jeers, applause mixed with boos.

• Manchester City 3-0 Watford

And, from the Watford supporters who had spotted Roberto Mancini briefing his sparring partner, came a refrain of "fight, fight". They didn't - one fracas a week is enough for even Mancini and Balotelli - but for Mario the comeback was a brief affair, there is no such thing as a quiet afternoon for a man who contrives to be more conspicuous when driving a supposedly camouflaged Bentley.

Reintegration, to use the word the England cricket team deployed about Kevin Pietersen's return to the fold, came quickly; some 48 hours after his altercation with Mancini, he made his first appearance in four weeks, since he mooched off in the Manchester derby. The kneejerk reactions that Balotelli's City career was over have proved wildly misplaced; the mixed reception he received shows that, for some of the supporters, cult hero has become more trouble than he is worth.

Instead, the first of the 100 more chances Mancini had pledged to give Balotelli began with a stinging shot that Jonathan Bond parried, continued with a header wide when he really should have added to his meagre tally of three goals for the season, and culminated in a drive that the goalkeeper pushed out to Marcos Lopes, giving the teenage winger a debut goal.

After the mockery of the travelling Hornets came the encouragement of their manager. Gianfranco Zola, like Mancini and Balotelli, belongs to the great Italian pantheon of unpredictable strikers, although the smiling Sardinian is far less temperamental.

Despite his defeat, he gave Balotelli a post-match pep talk in the technical area. "I have an affection for him," Zola said. "I worked with him for the [Italy] Under-21s and obviously I do care about him. I hope his potential comes true. In the short time he was on, he caused us so many problems. You just need to understand how to master his potential."

All of which seems the $64 million question that Mancini has wrestled with for the past two-and-a-half years. If the City manager believes the answer lies with Balotelli, his Watford counterpart concurs. "What I am talking about is himself, what he can do to improve his situation," Zola said. "I am only concerned that a young [player], with a lot of potential like him, can shine."

This particular tie was a luminous occasion for a still younger player. Eight days after his 17th birthday, Lopes, born in Brazil, signed from Benfica and a Portugal youth international, opened his City account. "He's got a big smile on his face at the moment," first-team coach David Platt said. "He has got great technical ability and wants to hurt the opposition. He has got a good future."

Lopes' presence on the scoresheet can be deceptive, however. While Joe Hart and Matija Nastasic were named on the bench, this was otherwise City's strongest available XI. "I was looking at the formation and laughing," said Zola masochistically. "They didn't rest anyone apart from the goalkeeper."

As it was, Hart's deputy Costel Pantilimon was called into action. Straight after Carlos Tevez powered City ahead with an unstoppable free-kick, Matej Vydra sent Fernando Forrestieri galloping through on goal. Pantilimon made a vital block. "If we conceded the one-on-one chance then you never know how it is going to go," Platt said.

Instead, City all but sealed victory when Gareth Barry headed in James Milner's cross. "That takes the stuffing out of them," Platt added. That said, an enterprising Watford side fashioned several more second-half chances and Zola was entitled to feel the scoreline was unfair, though accepting City were deserving winners.

Thus ended the 1997 and 2000 winner's participation in this year's competition. If there can seem something very parochial about the FA Cup, this was a cosmopolitan affair. Mancini and Zola were two of the great flair players from a golden age of Italian fantasistas and the two managers were serenaded with choruses to the tune of "Volare", City supporters competing with their Watford counterparts for their chants "Mancini" to be heard above those of "Gianfranco". But, besides possessing remarkable, eye-catching talents, the Serie A stars of the 1990s share a common interest in a modern-day Italian forward. Both have wrestled with the mystery that is Mario - Mancini literally - and decided that responsibility lies with one man alone: Balotelli himself.

MAN OF THE MATCH: James Milner. There are those who don't see what Milner contributes to City and there are times when the workhorse labours so others can get more glamorous duties. Here he was permitted to play as a winger and put in a series of enticing crosses. But for a fine save from Bond, he would have scored himself.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Elimination from Europe and the Capital One Cup has permitted Mancini to approach the FA Cup with a rather stronger side than some of his counterparts. Nevertheless, leaving Nastasic on the bench for the second successive game gave the young Serb a winter break. It was another sign of how Scott Sinclair's star has fallen that he could not get a start at home against Championship opposition.

WATFORD VERDICT: Away at the Premier League champions and without about half of his strongest side, Zola nonetheless showed his boldness by unveiling a new 3-4-3 formation and, unusually, putting Forrestieri, Vydra and Troy Deeney together as a front three. It almost brought them a goal and, if they can continue to attack with the same verve, they could hold on to a play-off place in the Championship.

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