Gianfranco Zola urged Mario Balotelli not to waste his talent after the Manchester City forward responded to another week of negative headlines with a reminder of his football ability in a comfortable victory against Watford.
Balotelli, photographed grappling with manager Roberto Mancini in a training ground clash on Thursday, teed up City's third goal - a close-range strike by 17-year-old Carlos Lopes - during an impressive 21-minute cameo as a substitute. Having proven to be a magnet for controversy, Balotelli's impressive contribution during this third-round tie underlined the good side of his character, rather than the bad and ugly element that he often projects.
And Watford manager Zola, who coached Balotelli with Italy Under-21s, offered the player some post-match advice on the touchline before urging him to realise his potential. "I have affection for him," Zola said. "Obviously I care about him and I do hope all his potential comes true. Even when he came on, in those few minutes, he caused us so many problems.
"You can see the potential in the man, he just needs to know how to master all his potential. I do hope he gets to that point. He will be a fantastic player if he does that. I'm only concerned that a young player with a lot of talent like him can shine and do whatever he can do."
Whether the penny has finally dropped for Balotelli remains to be seen, but his appearance at least suggested that Mancini still retains some faith in his troublesome forward. Having selected a virtually full-strength starting line-up, with the exception of Costel Pantilimon in goal for the rested Joe Hart, Mancini had sent out a clear message that this was a game, and tournament, that City wanted to win.
And it was a wise move to go with strength and experience against Zola's team, whose recent rise to the play-off positions in the second tier highlighted their ability to make life difficult for the champions. Watford, whose starting XI was bolstered by six loan players - four of them from Italian outfit Udinese - were organised and put City on the back foot in the early stages with the pace and trickery of Matej Vydra and Fernando Forestieri. But their bright start was checked midway through the first half when Carlos Tevez opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick.
The Argentine, who had not scored since the Premier League draw at home to Everton on Dec 1, beat Jonathan Bond with a searing strike from 25 yards after being fouled by Watford captain John Eustace. Not for the first time this season, a wall set up to defend against a free-kick failed to do its job with Watford's parting like the Red Sea as Tevez's shot whistled through the gap.
Watford almost equalised within 60 seconds of Tevez's goal, however, when striker Forestieri - one of the Udinese quartet - sprung the City offside trap to bear down on goal. But faced with the giant frame of the 6ft 7in Pantilimon, Forestieri fluffed his chance by shooting too close to the Romanian, who dived to his left to smother the ball. Had that one gone in, City may have faced a different challenge against a confident team on the hunt for a giant-killing.
"Goals change games," said City assistant manager David Platt. "If that one had gone in, it could have been different as it would have given Watford more confidence."
It proved a costly miss for Watford when Barry doubled City's lead after heading in James Milner's cross from six yards, two minutes before half-time. The goal made the second half a routine work-out for City, so with 21 minutes left to play, Mancini introduced Balotelli, prompting chants of 'Fight, Fight, Fight!' from the Watford supporters. Almost immediately, Balotelli added a new dimension, stinging Bond's hands with a long-range effort from 20 yards. A similar strike brought about the goal for Lopes which rounded off City's victory in style.