Roberto Mancini is facing a new challenge to keep one of his key Manchester City players happy after it emerged Mario Balotelli is homesick for Italy and has regrets about moving to England.
Balotelli has struggled to settle in Manchester and the Guardian has learned that the Italy international considers the problem to be getting worse rather than better. A complex, often difficult, character, he has found it hard to make friends with his new team-mates and, four months after signing from Internazionale, the £25m striker is openly admitting to associates in Italy that he intensely dislikes life in England and cannot see the situation improving.
The 20-year-old is on a five-year contract at City and feels a strong debt of loyalty to Mancini but is open to the idea of returning to Italy at the end of the season, despite the issues with racism that plagued him when he was a player at San Siro. Balotelli has frequently been linked with Milan in the Italian media, where there is a consistent belief that it is a just a question of time before he plays for the club he supported as a boy.
Mancini is aware of the player's difficulties and hopes their strong working relationship will help to find a solution for the benefit of City. The manager always knew that introducing a player with Balotelli's brooding, temperamental nature to a new country would not be an easy process and his thinking from the outset has been that it would be worth the hassle for someone he believes will eventually be regarded among the top five footballers in the world. Mancini was realistic enough to warn the chief executive, Garry Cook, and chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, that Balotelli would bring baggage but would ultimately be worth it.
Balotelli is not totally without friends – he has spent time with one of Mancini's sons, Andrea, and turned up for training one day recently in a Lamborghini borrowed from El Hadji Diouf of Blackburn Rovers – but he can appear dislocated from the rest of the squad.
He did not attend the players' Christmas party and, to put that into context, many of his team-mates did not expect him to be there in the first place. Balotelli's routine, with Mancini's permission, is to fly back to Italy whenever the players are given time off. His colleagues have come to regard him as a loner, difficult to approach and work out. Staff at Eastlands are not certain whether his attitude stems from surliness or shyness – or maybe a bit of both. Language is not a problem – Balotelli speaks good English – but the player has not embraced Manchester, the weather and the food and, as the only Italian footballer in the dressing room, is struggling to adapt to a new country.
The problem for Mancini is not a new one, with Robinho's inability to adopt Manchester one of the main reasons for his departure to Milan and, more recently, the revelation that Carlos Tevez is homesick for Argentina because of being separated from his two young daughters.
Tevez was persuaded to withdraw a written transfer request and City will hope Balotelli's issues are merely the kind of teething problems that might be expected of a player who arrived with a reputation as a man who struggled to make friends and frequently courted controversy. Nonetheless, his prickly and combustible nature is becoming an increasing matter for concern behind the scenes, with a growing feeling that City are dealing with an unhappy player, albeit one who has brought many of the problems on himself.
Balotelli was involved in a practice-ground fight with Jerome Boateng recently and has tested the patience of Mancini with his erratic performances and the frequency with which he ignores instructions. There have been glimpses of his prodigious talent but, overall, Balotelli's first few months in English football have been defined by the way he has run into trouble with referees.
Balotelli has scored five goals and picked up the same number of yellow cards, plus one red.
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