Villas-Boas and Tottenham must recognise time has caught up with Gallas and Friedel

Originally published for Goal UK on 12th November 2012

The reluctant super-sub Edin Dzeko spoke pointedly in the aftermath of Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham of delivering a message to Roberto Mancini following his match-winning cameo, but perhaps the most enlightening message that came from the contest was sent to Andre Villas-Boas courtesy of William Gallas and Brad Friedel.

To say it was a surprise to watch Spurs head to the dressing rooms at half-time leading 1-0 would be an understatement. Steven Caulker’s goal came in a difficult first 45 minutes and Villas-Boas’ men were fortunate to hold onto their lead over the remainder of the half. In truth, it was more the bungling finishing of City’s attackers and some generous refereeing than defensive mettle that kept the north London side ahead.

Friedel’s opening gambit dictated much of the remainder of his game as he ambled off his line to collect a loose ball in the box. Caulker shielded the ball under pressure before engaging in a shouting match with the American shot-stopper – not for the last time in the first half.

Elsewhere, Gallas was strapped into the Sergio Aguero roller-coaster before swiftly realising he did not like it, getting off and standing as far away from the Argentine as possible. This is the striker who netted 30 goals last season and already has four to his name this year.

What the 35-year-old defender did midway through the first period in retreating to his six-yard box as the ball was fed into Aguero was nothing short of scandalous. That Michael Oliver decided not to give a penalty for a blatant handball seconds later was a reprieve Gallas barely deserved.

The problem with veteran players is you tend to get attached to them. And depend on them. By the time you realise they have expired it is often too late. What Villas-Boas is doing in keeping faith with the duo is now damaging more than just results. The uncertainty in Friedel’s decision making and the erratic and idle marking of Gallas manifested fear in the rest of the team on Sunday.

Despite scoring, Caulker had arguably his poorest game in Spurs colours as he was dragged all over the pitch, chasing quick, nimble and evasive shadows. But it was the aforementioned communication breakdown with Friedel that instilled such trepidation. For all his talk as a future England centre-back, Caulker showed he had plenty to learn, though he will not be the first defender to be turned in the box by Aguero.

There is a reason that Gallas and Friedel have been near ever-presents for Villas-Boas and that can be traced back to his implosion at Chelsea. In his hasty attempt to impress his style and invoke the remit of revolution Roman Abramovich asked of the 35-year-old, Villas-Boas attempted to marginalise the old guard at Stamford Bridge. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and the like held more power than the Portuguese perhaps realised and ultimately he was moved on.

Fast forward to August 2012 and Villas-Boas has command of a talented but lighter squad than his popular predecessor oversaw. It made sense to empower the experienced members of the squad and in doing so he ensured he only upset fans still pining for Harry Redknapp, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric – three cult figures cut loose in the summer cull. Even a number of new signings have yet to receive extended minutes in the first team, such is Villas-Boas’ determination to keep the apple cart steady.

The disgust that has emanated from France over Hugo Lloris’ position on the Tottenham bench initially looked like an overreaction, but now more than ever it is starting to make sense. At 41 years of age Friedel has been a magnificent Premier League servant, indeed the American has become the safe pair of hands Heurelho Gomes never was. But it is ever more apparent that his time has passed.

The idea of continuity is at odds with Villas-Boas’ style. He likes to rotate his squad and drills his players to the point that any one of them can step in and follow his meticulous game-plans. He has, to this point, used more players than any other club in the league. However, continuity is also dangerous, particularly if the regulars are weak links.

Gallas has added commendable spirit and leadership since joining Spurs that many doubted he could provide. Tantrums and episodes at both Arsenal and Chelsea hinted at a fragile character with a short fuse, but for the most part he has been dependable in his time at the club.

But time waits for no man and as the legs tire quicker and the brain thinks slower, the negatives begin to outweigh the positives. Lloris is a superb talent; fast off his line, proficient with his feet and a commanding presence – everything Friedel lacks.

Jan Vertonghen has been one of the highlights of Spurs’ season and however capable he is when carrying the ball, he can look lost when defending from left-back – as highlighted in the build-up to Dzeko’s winner. With Kyle Naughton proving an able deputy and Benoit Assou-Ekotto close to a return to full fitness, the obvious move is to bring the Belgian back to his preferred centre-half role.

Perhaps the biggest test of Villas-Boas’ character will be in observing how long he perseveres with the pair. Gallas has played every minute of this campaign, while Friedel has missed just one league game.

The pair have been part of a defence that has conceded eight goals in their last four games. It is not solely their fault – as previously mentioned, Caulker was badly off-colour on Sunday and Kyle Walker has not been able to shake a funk that taints his England call-up with bewilderment.

Villas-Boas has one week to assess his options before he takes his Tottenham team to the Emirates for his first north London derby and the time is right to send the clearest message yet that this is his Spurs side, not the elderly hangover from Redknapp’s reign.

Short-sighted Manchester City left hamstrung by pointless Garcia, Rodwell & Sinclair signings

The big news at Manchester City this week was the unveiling of Txiki Begiristain as the Premier League champions’ new director of football, a move that was surely invoked after an abject summer transfer window.

As title winners with an almost endless cash flow, it was simply expected, assumed, that Roberto Mancini would be photographed alongside a gaggle of the world’s best players. Yet, come September, he had Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and Scott Sinclair by his side – hardly names to crow about.

The Italian manager certainly cut a frustrated figure throughout the off-season, remarking in the aftermath of their failed Robin van Persie swoop: “No, I’m not happy. I don’t want to say anything at the moment. For me we have a good team but we need to continue to improve. You should talk to Brian Marwood for this. Not me.”

The reference to the one-time England winger, a man brought to the club to assist Mark Hughes in 2009 under the title of football administrator, was cutting and hinted at discord between the two.

Mancini went on to explain the root of his frustration, adding: “I think when you win something you should look to improve and buy new players but not too close to the end. The league was finished in May and I think now it is very difficult to move in the market. After three or four months … nothing.”

Proactivity was replaced by caution, possibly due to concerns over the financial fair play regulations eking their way into the consciousness of the big spenders and certainly on account of the Champions League registration rules that require eight “club-trained” or “association-trained” players.


And so, as talk of Daniele De Rossi and Javi Martinez built to a crescendo in August, fans of the club must have been somewhat perplexed as they watched Rodwell – a player who has constantly flattered to deceive – replace the outgoing Nigel de Jong and accepted the wrong Javi, as Garcia jetted in from Portugal instead of Martinez from the Basque Country.

The club still shelled out approximately £52 million this past window but many would argue whether the deal for Matija Nastasic (which also saw the underwhelming Stefan Savic depart) was worth any value to City – he remains in the category of “prospect” rather than “superstar”.

Subsequently, their plodding in the transfer market allowed City’s nearest rivals to close the gap and it has shown in the first quarter of games of the 2012-13 league season.

Chelsea have motored to the front of the queue playing compelling football, largely on account of the £52m spent on Eden Hazard and Oscar. Manchester United, meanwhile, pipped City to the capture of the league’s most deadly marksman – all this after poaching Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund.

Most observers will agree that City have yet to find their rhythm this season. A rigid setup and unimaginative attack have seen the champions pushed to their limit already, requiring Edin Dzeko to come to the rescue in their two previous away league encounters. The defence has kept just two clean sheets and David Silva has yet to rediscover the spark that captured the hearts of every purist in the British Isles.

The acquisitions of Sinclair and Maicon only add weight to the debate over City’s business.

The former Swansea City winger was a direct replacement for Adam Johnson but is an inferior player. On the surface, he has been signed purely as a back-up, something Sinclair himself even admitted. “I don’t know how often I’ll play,” he said – hardly a ringing endorsement of his own talent.

Maicon by the same token was an opportunistic transfer for a player the club don’t need. Even with Micah Richards’ latest setback, the Brazilian remains behind Pablo Zabaleta – one of the club’s best performers this year.

It all leaves you with a slightly sore head – no doubt a familiar feeling for Mancini. There are too many question marks hanging over the summer signings and not enough convincing performances to justify their big-money moves. Javi Garcia is certainly no amateur but, ahead of a campaign in which teams would be even more wise to City’s constant creative probing, was another holding midfielder a priority?

There is a direct example of how business can be done as Mancini takes his side to east London for a difficult fixture at West Ham. Sam Allardyce has carved much of his career from astute signings and tactful free transfers – exemplified this season by the wonderful emergence of Mohamed Diame.

The former Wigan midfielder hinted at his talent when on display for the Latics but it is only since his move to the Hammers that his value has truly been discovered and, if you size them up now, who would you rather? Rodwell or Diame?

The caveat to all of the above is that City remain unbeaten in the Premier League. Their Champions League campaign may lie in tatters but the domestic front remains the biggest priority for the club’s fans and, indeed, management. The worry, of course, is that City have stood still, which in football translates to moving backwards. They face an uphill battle to retain their crown, continuing with Saturday’s game at Upton Park.

Manchester City need Hart, Kompany & Yaya Toure to translate champion spirit to Champions League

This piece was originally on on 24/10/2012

There have been wobbles, dropped points, inexplicable errors and confused tactical shuffles but Manchester City have rediscovered their domestic form, largely thanks to the champion spirit exuded by Edin Dzeko at Craven Cottage and The Hawthorns in recent weeks.

Still absent, though, is a maiden win in Europe following a late capitulation in Madrid and a fortuitous point claimed from Dortmund after one of the most dominant away performances seen at Etihad Stadium in years. The past, however, according to Vincent Kompany, is “irrelevant”.

The Premier League champions take to Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night knowing full well that anything other than a win will leave their hopes of qualification from Group D of the Champions League in a perilous state.

For Roberto Mancini, a manager who has never prospered in Europe – two quarter-final appearances with Inter are the sum of six campaigns in Uefa’s premier club competition – three points are essential and he will rely on the influence and inspiration of his three pillars of dependability, Joe Hart, Kompany and Yaya Toure, to guide them through this tricky fixture.

Yet, there are question marks over their reliability after a less than stellar start to 2011-12. Hart was (almost) unbeatable against Dortmund but has looked fallible on his travels, most notably in Poland for England and to some extent in the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid. He may not like it, but Hart has kept just one clean sheet thus far, three fewer than at this stage a year ago.

Yaya Toure, a match-winner on his day, has yet to recapture the form that had many hail the Ivorian as the most complete midfielder in world football last year, whilst Kompany is a shell of the impenetrable wall that led to him being named Premier League Player of the Season as he skippered his side to final day glory.

The trio were vital to the success City enjoyed and although David Silva pitter-pattered to much acclaim, Sergio Aguero banged in crucial goals and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli entertained in their own unique ways, the steady three that run down the spine of Mancini’s side were consistently brilliant and vice-versa.

Surprisingly Kompany, of all people, has found the going tough this year. The tactical tinkering of Mancini, attempting to integrate a 3-5-2 style and the constant rotation of his full-backs, has undoubtedly created unnecessary problems for his Belgian captain and it has shown on the pitch.

Gone is the sure-footedness that had him labelled as the best centre-half in Europe five months ago and in its place is an uncertainty in his positioning and decision making. His suicidal and clumsy dawdling on the West Brom halfway line indirectly led to James Milner’s sending off and Kompany’s reaction was telling – he knew he’d blundered.

Yaya Toure was fantastic in the Bernabeu, particularly as he careered through the heart of the Madrid defence to lay the ball into Dzeko’s feet for their second goal. However, this was the exception rather than the sight that caused punters to sit back and gasp last year – a sight City fans will be longing for in Amsterdam. The statistics for the hulk of a midfielder are telling: Yaya Toure has been a victim of a shuffle in style.

On average, he hits more shots per game (2.4 to 2), plays more key passes (2 to 1.7) and completes more successful dribbles (1.4 to 1.2) than in the last Premier League season. But defensively, there are fewer interceptions (0.5 to 1.2) and tackles (0.8 to 1.7) – a product of the signing of Javi Garcia, perhaps. Needless to say, Mancini clearly wants the 29-year-old in a more advanced position where he can better utilise his attacking prowess. The problem is adjustment.

Fortunately these teething problems are fixable. Hart has shown some of his best form in Europe, even if you include the late Ronaldo strike that some would put down as his fault. Kompany is too accomplished to struggle for so long – indeed, it is a surprise he hasn’t conquered this malaise already. A traditional Yaya Toure gallop up the field is perhaps the best metaphor for City’s season too – slow to get going, but devastating in full bluster.

Javi Garcia and Silva are ruled out of the game in Holland, meaning the value of Mancini’s three most time-tested commodities is multiplied. They must deliver for the Italian.

Ajax, though winless in Group D, are, aside from the 4-1 reverse to Madrid, undefeated at home and Frank de Boer’s charges will be intent on securing a positive result. The statistics are conflicting, though: the Dutch side haven’t won in three but City have lost three of their last four European away games. Something has to give.

City are fortunate to be able to count on Hart but Mancini warned of continuing an unwelcome trend when asked about his side’s alarming rate of conceding chances to their opposition. In just two Champions League games, the club have faced 50 attempts on goal, prompting the 47-year-old to remark: “It is difficult not to concede chances. We had a bad game against Dortmund, but it is important we don’t give away so many chances to score.”

In truth, it won’t matter how City claim their first win of their second Champions League campaign, something Kompany reiterated in the pre-game press conference: “We’re a very disciplined team and we have shown we have a great capacity to react, and tomorrow is a different game, a different set-up and it’s just important to win.”

A win will not only provide City’s European ambitions with a much-needed shot in the arm, it will complete the transference of a domestic turn of form to a competition they must see the latter stages of. And for that, Mancini needs the three stars to align if City are to ensure last season’s group stage failure is not repeated.

Premier League Preview 2012/13 – Part 2 of 4 (Liverpool – Norwich)

Prediction: 6th
Odds: 28/1

Though the Anfield club grabbed silverware in the form of the League Cup last year, focus must resume on finding a way back into the Champions League this year.

The club are still suffering the financial hangover of the whopping £70 million spent on Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, hampering Brendan Rodgers’ plans for the coming campaign.

That said, they have snaffled one of the league’s surprise packages in Joe Allen, providing Rodgers with the player that typified the successful system he employed at Swansea.

Rodgers is another of the game’s most promising managers and it will be intriguing to see how quickly he can get the higher profile stars of Liverpool to adjust to his style. I expect the transition will take time, though the 3-0 win over FC Gomel showed promising early signs – particularly through the understanding Fabio Borini showed alongside Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez.

Borini is an intelligent goalscoring forward – a fairly rare breed in the modern game – and I expect he will surprise a number of people this year. If Liverpool can keep hold of Daniel Agger and get Suarez scoring more than he did last year, they will do well and may even push hard for a top four place. There is a wealth of young talent waiting in the wings as well and if Rodgers gets the mix right, this will be an exciting year to be following Liverpool.

Key Man: Luis Suarez

If you ignore his indiscretions, his diving and cheating there is much to appreciate in Suarez. He may not be the goalscorer his Ajax statistics suggested he would be but the Uruguayan is one of the most dangerous forwards in the league. His movement and ability to beat defenders as well as the work-rate that keeps defenders permanently under pressure ensures he is always a threat. I’m looking forward to seeing how his partnership with Fabio Borini blossoms this year – it could be one of the best duos in the league.

Prediction: 1st
Odds: 13/10

The 3-2 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield hugely flattered Roberto Di Matteo’s side in my eyes as the Premier League champions looked sharper, more fluid and threatening than their opponents. In short, it didn’t look as if they’d been away.

Of course, it’s largely down to the lack of activity in the transfer market as Roberto Mancini lamented in the days preceding the fixture. Though Jack Rodwell has since been added, City look set to start the season with a relatively unchanged first XI as they embark on their title defence.

Though it may frustrate the Italian, he has such a wealth of talent in his disposal that even by picking up where they left off, City will finish in the top two. But with the addition of a fully focused Carlos Tevez – the man who missed five months last season – City have someone who will inevitably add goals to their attack.

The most interesting thing to come from their pre-season is the introduction of the three-man defence. There carries some risk and the two goals Chelsea scored suggest City may be easier to break down this season but in attack they carry an extra body – surely bad news for defences across the league.

The worry is whether they have the defenders to play this system all season. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott are certain to start but rumours of a bust-up with Kolo Toure mean Mancini will have to turn to the fragile Stefan Savic more than he would like. Still, that’s not to say he will employ the new system all season, it just adds an exciting dynamic to an already strong team.

The pressure that caused a late season collapse was relieved by Aguero’s last minute title-winner and the squad should carry a swagger about their play this year. They are the champions and I’d expect it to give them more freedom in their play. Whether that translates to Europe and the Champions League is another question, but domestically, I predict a second title for Mancini and his men.

Key Man: Sergio Aguero

It was overshadowed by his title-winning strike but 23 league goals in his debut season in England was almost unprecedented. With a year of experience behind him, a more attacking style and his compatriot Carlos Tevez alongside him, it’s not ridiculous to say he could improve on last year’s haul. If he does, I expect City to claim the title again and go far in Europe.

Prediction: 2nd
Odds: 2/1

The devastating last-day concession of their title will undoubtedly renew Sir Alex’s hunger for another title and though he looked defeated after the 4-4 draw with Everton, I wouldn’t read much into that. It was a gruelling season and although United lost to those ‘noisy neighbours’ make no mistake, Ferguson will be after that 20th title.

And they have made strides over the summer, snapping up promising goalscoring midfielder Shinji Kagawa, talented 18-year-old Nick Powell and now Robin van Persie, last season’s top goalscorer. Add to that the return to fitness of Nemanja Vidic and United suddenly look as strong as they have done since the days of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney.

But there remains one gap still yet to be plugged – centre-midfield. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are another year older, is Darren Fletcher going to be back to the required standard after so long out? Michael Carrick has turned into United’s most valuable central option and although there is a promising partnership blossoming with Tom Cleverley (for both club and country) it is a lot to ask the 23-year-old to play an entire campaign at a high level – no matter his potential. There is of course Anderson, but going on past seasons, Ferguson would do well to get five good games out of him.

Overall, I’m pretty confused with United this year. I’ve got no idea how they will line-up. Ferguson has maintained a love for 4-4-2 despite signs that it is a dying system in the modern game, yet he is unlikely to move to anything as exuberant as a three-man defence. A 4-3-3 would see Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani maligned whereas the 4-4-2 seemingly puts Kagawa in a difficult situation.

That could be Ferguson’s biggest challenge this year – finding a system in which he could get the maximum out of the talent in his squad. With this in mind, I think they will chase City hard but ultimately fall just short.

Key Man: Robin van Persie

It may seem silly to pick the Dutchman as the club’s main man this year but if he adapts quickly and forms a good understanding with Wayne Rooney (there’s no reason why they shouldn’t) and emulate last season’s heroics at Arsenal, United will win the title. The confusion over the system, where Van Persie will play (surely as a straight No. 9?) and how often he will play (injuries?) just puts the brakes on me predicting a title-winning season for United.

Prediction: 7th
Odds: 150/1

The Magpies over-achieved last year, largely thanks to two phenoms up front. Demba Ba smashed them in for the first five months and Papiss Cisse finished the job in the second-half. The question is whether both were flashes in the pan. Ba’s form didn’t last, though that was more because Alan Pardew deployed the Senegalese striker out wide after Cisse’s arrival.

Cisse was unstoppable after arriving in January, netting with some ludicrous finishes – some of which will go down as the best the league has ever seen in my opinion. But can Pardew get the two of them playing well alongside each other? In theory, yes – they should work well together.

But the end of season switch to a 4-3-3 suggested Pardew is looking at other systems ahead of this season. If so, who gets dropped? And can Cisse possibly keep up his goalscoring feats?

Transfer-wise, the best news for Newcastle fans was seeing the club hold onto their key assets. Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye are a fantastic duo in midfield, while Hatem Ben Arfa adds flair to the attack. Romain Amalfitano will provide further quality in the central areas as a play-making option while Gael Bigirimana brings pace and a direct approach to the flanks.

Vurnon Anita also moved from Ajax and will further add depth to the squad, presumably competing with Davide Santon and Jonas for a slot on the left flank.

It has been a positive summer for Newcastle and Pardew’s squad certainly has more strength than last season – essential given they will be fighting on four fronts this year – but for me, their success will hinge on the exploits of their two main strikers. It is worth adding that if the strikers do hit and maintain form, they would be a good outside bet to find success in one of the three cup competitions they enter this year.

Key Man: Papiss Cisse

As I’ve noted, if Cisse can pick up where he left off last season, Newcastle will have a fine season. He could be the best finisher we have seen in the last ten years, or he could simply be a bit lucky. It’s not meant as a slight, but there was the feeling that anything he swung his boot at would go in last year. Whether he is genuinely a supreme talent or someone riding a wave of post-transfer confidence remains to be seen. He’ll be fun to watch regardless.

Prediction: 15th
Odds: 2500/1

Norwich surprised many last season. Tipped to go down after two consecutive promotions, Paul Lambert engineered something of a master-stroke by keeping the Canaries in mid-table – securing safety with plenty of games in hand.

Now though, it is Chris Hughton’s turn at Carrow Road. After spending years as a No. 2, Hughton made the step into management, and it has been marked by successful stints with tricky briefs – Newcastle (promotion) and Birmingham (play-offs). This though, is his first test in the Premier League – though it should not be forgotten how many years as a player and coach he spent in the top flight.

It is essential the Canaries get off to a decent start and provide the fans with faith in Hughton’s approach. He has done well to ensure last season’s top goalscorer and all-round handful Grant Holt signed a new contract and with him leading the line, Hughton should expect a decent haul of goals.

The squad itself is relatively unchanged, though Hughton has strengthened the defence by signing Steven Whittaker and Michael Turner. The addition of Robert Snodgrass from Leeds will also provide a further degree of creativity in a hard-working and effective midfield.

Though they will struggle to match last season’s 12th-place finish, I still expect Norwich to survive the dreaded second season.

Key Man: Anthony Pilkington

Perhaps surprisingly I’ve highlighted the attacking midfielder as Norwich’s key man this year. He impressed me in their 2-1 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane by finding space between the midfield and defence. He has a good eye for goal, netting seven Premier League goals last year and that kind of contribution will be much-needed if the club are to reach the magic 40-point mark.

With Tevez waiting, it’s no disaster if City miss out on Van Persie

Is it time to worry yet? As Financial Fair Play rules cast a dark cloud over the many Premier League benefactors, the Manchester City 2012-13 chequebook has gathered dust and Robin van Persie is still yet to be paraded around the Etihad Stadium by a grinning Roberto Mancini.

It is peculiar to note that after 30 days, the oil-rich Premier League champions are yet to make a single signing this summer. In fact, the squad of last year has barely changed and we’re just three weeks away from the start of their title defence.

Though many expect Van Persie to join following his much-publicised decision not to renew his Arsenal contract, Mancini may find he has the world-class forward he desires sitting in his dressing room already.

Carlos Tevez netted his first goal of City’s pre-season on Monday against Malaysia XI in a performance that would have given his Italian manager, who he has shared such a turbulent relationship with, food for thought ahead of the new campaign.

Last year’s rather seesawing fracas ignited an absurd stand-off between manager and player that led to the club banishing Tevez – without much protest from the striker himself – to Argentina for over four months, with Mancini telling anyone that would listen that the Argentine would never play for the club again.

As it turned out, Tevez apologised “sincerely and unreservedly” for his actions, remarked that he’d been treated “like a dog” and returned in time for City’s run-in. With hindsight you might suggest the club’s maiden Premier League title win could have been sealed in a less nail-biting fashion had Tevez been available all season, such was the brief flicker of form he displayed.

The brilliant hat-trick against Norwich was a stark reminder of the talent the volatile striker possesses and the almost telepathic link he shared with Sergio Aguero that day offered more than a subtle hint as to what the pair could offer Mancini.

Of course, there can be little denial that Van Persie would add considerable firepower to City’s attack – especially if he were to replace Edin Dzeko, who often flattered to deceive, even in scoring 19 goals in 40 games – but signing the Dutchman should not be seen as the Holy Grail this summer.

In the three years Tevez has been at City, Van Persie has scored 69 goals in 101 games. The Argentine falls slightly below that figure with 56 in 98, though suffered a significant dry spell last year, netting just four times.

And, though he is undoubtedly the more complex figure, Tevez is younger, more resistant to injuries – though Van Persie seems to have shed that injury-prone reputation – and can claim a potent understanding with his compatriot Aguero. Though the age gap is almost insignificant, the other two factors certainly count in Tevez’s favour.

City have found a style to claim their own in the Mancini era. It may seem churlish to describe it as a grown-up version of the approach so synonymous of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, but their watertight defence ensured they were never out of a game, while at the other end the genius of David Silva, incisiveness of Samir Nasri and movement and finishing of Aguero made them the most devastating attacking unit in the Premier League.

Clearly Van Persie is a player capable of tailoring his game to suit Mancini’s tactical demands, but in Tevez he already has a striker adept enough to contribute goals and assists within his framework.

Tevez’s mental state, however, will forever be under scrutiny. His time in Manchester, on both sides of the divide, has resulted in fractious relationships with team-mates and staff and there is the lingering concern that he is a man that has fallen out of love with football – quite possibly down to the nomadic career he has experienced under his agent Kia Joorabchian.

Yet, recent signs have been positive. Indeed, an improvement in his attitude has been noted by his club and international colleague Pablo Zabaleta, who said: “Carlos has been fantastic in training. He’s been prepared to work hard for the team and with his attitude and effort, that’s good for us.”

Mancini, meanwhile, left the door open for Tevez on Monday, admitting: “I don’t think I can change Carlos. I just want respect, for me and for the club.”

So far, he appears to have that respect. Tevez has been a prominent part of the pre-season schedule, starting all five of their matches, four of them alongside Aguero, suggesting he has convinced Mancini he is worth counting on once again. On their performance against Malaysia XI, Mancini added: “I’m even more confident today. Sergio played very well and his partnership with Carlos has continued from last season.”

If he recaptured the goalscoring knack he had in his first two years at the Etihad, alongside Aguero – who notched an almost unprecedented 23 league goals in his debut season in England – City will have no need to feel deflated should they miss out on the marquee capture of Van Persie.

A fully focused Carlos Tevez has the attributes to be just as devastating as Van Persie could be for City. Tevez has proved his pedigree under Mancini, whereas the Dutchman would still represent a gamble – however minor that might be.

To end on a vastly overused cliche – Tevez really could be like a new signing.

Kompany’s new six-year deal is the best business of Manchester City’s summer

While Shinji Kagawa netted his first goal for Manchester United and Chelsea confirmed the signing of Oscar on Wednesday, Manchester City went one better on Thursday morning, announcing Vincent Kompany, their talismanic captain, had put pen to paper on a new six-year deal.

And it may well prove to be City’s best piece of business this summer, especially as a move for Robin van Persie continues to make slow progress. In fact, in a game of multi-million pound gambles, where some of the Manchester club’s transfer business has been castigated (see Jo, Robinho and Roque Santa Cruz), the Kompany deal kept their chief negotiators honest.

Signed for a scarcely believable £6 million in 2008, the Belgian defender has morphed from a promising and versatile prospect to the brute of a centre-back that won the Premier League’s Player of the Season award last year – only the second defender to take the award in it’s 18-year history.

Roberto Mancini, who also signed a new long-term deal earlier this month, has kept his cards close to his chest so far this summer and unusually, City have yet to make a significant move in the transfer market. Though Van Persie is widely seen to be the marquee signing the club are aiming to make this summer, there is no rush to add to the squad that overhauled United in one of the most remarkable Premier League campaigns of all time.

City’s open attitude to marketing, allowing the supporters an inside look at the club via citytv has enabled the casual observer to learn more about the character of the squad and it was noticeable last season that Kompany was detached from some of the more extravagant players.

In one such moment, sat alongside Micah Richards – once touted as a future City captain – Kompany ignored his prattling about the latest iPod, focusing instead on the match they were being driven to. It may have been a small glimpse, but away from the game, I can think of few other examples that so clearly displayed the brazen determination we’re accustomed to seeing on the pitch. His robotic machinations were evidence enough to the purposeful character that Mancini decided would make a fine captain.

On the pitch, he was the leader of the meanest defence in the league, as City conceded just 29 goals en route to claiming the domestic game’s greatest prize – their first for 44 years. And it was perhaps the match-winning header in the Manchester derby that propelled them above their bitter rivals, in front of 47,000 people, that endeared him most to the City supporters.

He is the first (and most prominent) of the new wave of City icons; joining the likes of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee in club folklore. On a broader scale, Kompany looks set to emblazon his name in Premier League legend as well.

Alongside Kompany and Mancini’s new contracts, City are also expected to secure David Silva’s future – another of the club’s most valuable assets – as they move to cement the foundations ahead of an assault on the Champions League next year.

Aside from Joe Hart, Richards and Pablo Zabaleta, Kompany is the only surviving regular from the Mark Hughes side of 2008-09 to go on and lift the Premier League trophy, offering the rare source of continuity so key to creating any great dynasty.

The old adage that you need to know where you’ve come from to know where you are going rings true in Kompany’s case and in tying the Belgian to a long-term deal, City have secured the foundation they need to pursue dominance in the global game.

This article originally appeared on

Pride of Italy: the making of Mario Balotelli

If there is one thing I took from Italy’s humbling of Germany it was to radically change my opinion on Mario Balotelli. And I’m sure I’m not alone on this.

I also learnt betting against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy is a sure fire way to empty the bank balance but that’s another matter.

For it was Balotelli’s sumptuous double that claimed the headlines and dumped Joachim Low’s German team out of Euro 2012.

Perhaps it is the unpredictability of Balotelli’s nature that lulled me into the belief that for all the plaudits the 21-year-old has received in his short career, it was all a bit of a ruse. His record at Manchester City – just shy of a goal every two games – is impressive enough for a striker not always deployed as Roberto Mancini’s first-choice.

Yet, the moments of madness, on-pitch tantrums, off-pitch mischief and red cards have blighted his time in England and critics – including Mancini – have doubted whether he is worth the trouble.

But he is eminently watch-able, a likeable character and a good footballer. How good, I was unsure – until Italy’s improbable run to the final of Euro 2012. This Italian team were meant to improve on the disastrous group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup but were never viewed as genuine tournament contenders – see the 14/1 pre-Euros price as evidence.

But Prandelli – a modern think-tank manager – has assembled an exciting, young squad, likely only to get better over the next few years. And after a three-goal tournament, it is highly probably that Balotelli will be at the heart of it. After fears that he was wasting his talent, Balotelli now looks to have assured his place on the international scene. This has been his breakout moment.

The partnership with Antonio Cassano – another player having a fine Euros – has blossomed. On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be Italy’s Achilles’ heel, but it has been quite the opposite. While the world lauds Andrea Pirlo for his dictatorial displays in midfield, it can be easy to forget that without the movement of those around him, Pirlo’s game would be hindered.

The courage Prandelli has shown to pair Cassano and Balotelli was calculated. The off-the-ball movement of the two terrorised the German defence, leaving one of the best performers in Poland and Ukraine – Mats Hummels – reeling. His partner, Holger Badstuber, fared no better as he was left glued to the ground for Balotelli’s first.

They are the two most intelligent strikers in Italy’s squad and have been given the freedom to be proactive this tournament. There are no restrictions on their movement and no demands on their work-rate – though that has not been under question this summer.

The talents Cassano possesses are not a mystery – though how he has summoned them following such a tough year – remains one. Balotelli however, has often flattered to deceive. A moment of brilliance can be lost in the furore surrounding a reckless tackle, a stamp or a wayward pass. In fact, this was most evident in the game against Spain. Balotelli’s nonchalant flick of his boot on the touchline to control a pass destined for the stands was brilliant. His ponderous finish when in on goal, less so. And he was remembered for that missed chance.

After two goalless games, but performances that suggested an understanding with Cassano was forming, Balotelli was dropped. A switch in formation allowed Prandelli to assess his other options but it was the final flourish in a 2-0 win over Ireland that made headlines. Balotelli’s excellent overhead kick capped Italy’s win and briefly tempted the volatile striker to hit out at his critics – something Leandro Bonucci put a stop to immediately.

That callow moment was one of a couple of incidents that reminded us of Balotelli’s impudence but as Bonucci clasped his hand over the striker’s mouth, it ushered in a new maturity as Italy headed to the knock-out stages.

The build-up to England v Italy contained plenty of Balotelli narrative. He is the only member of the Azzurri squad to play in the Premier League and the talk focussed on his battle with club-mates Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart. Though he didn’t score, Balotelli proved a constant thorn in the side of the English defence, finding space and troubling Lescott and John Terry in equal abundance. Much like his run for the second goal against Germany, he sprung the offside trap, only to be denied by a combination of Hart and Terry.

After two hours of football, Balotelli showed his mettle, stepping up to take the first penalty and coolly stroking it past Hart. His celebration – something so rare – showed the value he placed on the spot-kick. It was another riposte to his critics.

And that has been the true story of Balotelli’s Euros. He has only played 13 times for Italy but lacked the support and acceptance of the press. That was until his double against Germany.

‘Pride of Italy’ adorned the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport’s website with a picture of a topless Balotelli, flexing his muscles and proving another point to pundits too quick to write him off. The same image was met with ‘We beat them black and blue’ on Tuttosport’s front page today – a telling innuendo. Balotelli’s rise has been difficult for some on the peninsula to stomach but for pure footballing reasons – as it should be – he deserves the adulation he receives.

Whether all of this truly represents Balotelli’s breakout remains to be seen, but for the first time, I, like many others, are left wondering just how good he could be. His first test will be in Sunday’s final against Spain. His second, retaining the Premier League. In years to come, this tournament could be referenced as the making of Balotelli.

Unless he gets sent off in Kiev…

A Prattling Premier League Preview – Weekend of 5/5/2012

As you can see I’ve timed this new feature superbly with it being the penultimate weekend of the season. In spite of that, here’s my slapdash take on this week’s Premier League fixtures:

Arsenal 3-1 Norwich

Definite home win. Norwich have basically decided it’s holiday time and after surpassing the magic number of 40 points, they’ve gone and lost their last three league games by an aggregate score of 11-1. They even lost to Blackburn AND failed to score against them (just the third team all year to do that).

However Arsenal are in a strange run of form, scoring just twice in their last three games and picking up just two points at Stoke and at home to Chelsea. Even the mighty Robin Van Persie seems a little jaded as the season comes to a close.

That said, if there’s one thing to galvanise a Dutchman it’s an award. Basking in the adulation of his peers and perhaps more importantly, the football writers, I fully expect Van Persie to lead Wenger’s side to a comfortable home victory.

Newcastle 1-2 Man City

The biggest game of the weekend sees Roberto Mancini’s side head across to the north-east and face Newcastle – surely team of the season. Alan Pardew’s side have already defeated Manchester United and Liverpool at St James Park (sorry, the Sports Direct Arena), as well as claiming a point from Arsenal and Tottenham.

Now, is Papiss Cisse the greatest finisher of my lifetime? At the moment – yes, quite considerably. Is he lucky? Yes, that too. His 13 goals in 12 games should strike fear into the hearts of all things sky blue but City seem made of sterner stuff this year. Captain Kompany looked incredibly focused immediately after the club’s win over Manchester United and I reckon this could be the man capable of stopping Papiss.

I just can’t see City passing up yet another chance to claim a maiden Premier League title. This will be a narrow away win.

Aston Villa 1-3 Tottenham

It’s hard to find crumbs of comfort for Alex McLeish – Aston Villa’s lame duck manager. It looks as though the Midlands club will survive relegation by default as QPR, Wigan and Bolton will have to find four points from six. Throw in a mischievous clubbing incident, some liberal fines and a team that have won just twice in 17 games and you have a problem.

That problem will likely be exacerbated by Harry Redknapp’s team on Sunday. They’ve rediscovered some semblance of the form that at one point made the north Londoners a foregone conclusion for a Champions League place. A flowing 4-1 win over Bolton on Wednesday, a team I view as having a better starting eleven than Villa, should provide enough support to predict an away win.

Bolton 1-1 WBA

A tricky fixture to call as we just don’t know how the Baggies will respond to the imminent departure of their boss Roy Hodgson. I’m going to throw it out there that they’ll want to sign off in style as a form of ‘thank you’ to a manager who has turned the perennial yo-yo club into a mid-table outfit.

Bolton had a brief period of 15 minutes against Spurs where they looked to have the courage and fight to battle against the increasingly magnetic pull of the Premier League trapdoor. I suspect they’ll be better against West Brom and at least keep it tighter at the back – they’ve only conceded once in four games at home…

Fulham 3-0 Sunderland

Pyjamas on, lights out. That’s the impression I get with these two teams. Both have had positive years – Fulham’s first with Martin Jol in charge must be deemed a success and only the uncharacteristic 4-0 humping by Everton prevented the Cottagers from pushing on for a 7th place finish (thought it is still an outside possibility).

Meanwhile an iffy start by the Black Cats, which led to the sacking of Steve Bruce, was arrested by Martin O’Neill. But without a win in six, they look perfectly content with their mid-table finish.

I doubt O’Neill will allow his side to head to a game and not put up a decent fight but a relaxed side under Jol should dominate this fixture.

QPR 2-1 Stoke

The hosts are teetering. They’re on the brink, but are just propped up by Bolton who have a much more inferior goal difference. The importance of the games at Loftus Road was something hugely emphasised on Mark Hughes’ arrival and to be fair his team have consistently delivered, beating the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. The problem has been their away form – six consecutive losses.

But we won’t worry about that right now – it’s all about dealing with Stoke. Deputy sling-shotter Ryan Shotton hasn’t been nearly as effective as his mentor Rory Delap – hence the Irishman’s return against Everton. I do wonder if the narrow space between touchline and stand will cause him a problem?

Stoke are another side content with their campaign and should QPR match the commitment forever expected of a Tony Pulis outfit, I predict a massively important home win.

Wolves 2-2 Everton

Has Terry Connor burst into tears yet? Not quite actually and that’s largely down to the stirring comeback in Wales that saw Wolves snatch a point off the Swans. TC hasn’t had much fun in Mick’s hot-seat but it was pleasing to see him get a touch of fortune and even break out a smile. The pressure is off and this is the final game at home before the Championship calendar hangs in the offices of Molineux.

Finishing a season in vastly better form than they began it, we have David Moyes’ Toffees. Yes, once again, the late season rally from Everton has kept their season nicely entertaining. This year it’s particularly enthralling if you’re of a Merseyside persuasion as the battle for 7th – possibly the least talked about battle in a Premier League campaign – is actually interesting. Everton lead by three points over Dalglish’s Reds and although it ultimately will mean very little with Liverpool winning at least one trophy, it’s important to Evertonians. So a win here? No actually.

Man Utd 4-1 Swansea

Ah, the other Manchester club. A routine home victory? An ‘easy’ fixture as Roberto Mancini put it? I beg to differ. I think the Swans will give United a real test. I don’t think they’ll win, or even draw, but it will be a lot tougher than Mancini predicts.

United will need to be thinking about goal difference and on paper this is a great chance to spank a few hundred goals past one of those rubbish promoted sides. Thing is, they need the ball and little Joe Allen quite likes it himself. In amazingly contradictory shocker, I predict Swansea to dominate possession but United to win by three.

Blackburn 1-3 Wigan

The biggest battle at the bottom of the table this weekend and it is simply a must-win game for the home side. In fact, if Steve Kean’s side lose, they’d need a miracle in other results not only this weekend but on the final weekend too. So it’s a good job, he prepared his side correctly – playing a scarcely believable 5-4-1 away at Tottenham in a form of damage limitation. In his technical area last week Kean showed the body language of a man that has finally accepted that he’ll simply never be accepted. It’s hard to watch but ‘team Kean’ may finally be put to rest.

By who? Well those plucky Barcelona boys up in Wigan. Possibly playing the best football the league has seen this season, the Latics have done what they do best by springing into life a month before what seemed like certain relegation. Unconventional to the very end – who else plays a 3-4-3? – Roberto Martinez’s charges are playing their way from relegation. Oh yes, in a middle finger to the supporters of battling, long-ball survival football, Wigan are just passing the life out of anyone who dares step to them. Away win.

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

In one of those unfortunate fixture computer calamities, Liverpool and Chelsea meet again just four days after they duel at Wembley for the FA Cup. Given that this will be the last game of this round of fixtures, I’ll draw some quick conclusions from my predictions.

Chelsea will no longer be able to catch Spurs in the league and so everything becomes tailored towards the Champions League final. That means an immediate rest for anyone who played in the extra time win over Liverpool on Saturday – especially fatigued match-winner Fernando Torres – ooof what a story that was!

Liverpool are four points behind Everton and with just a League Cup to show for this year, must hunt their rivals down. Full strength team including a ludicrously petulant Luis Suarez. He may get sent-off but he got a goal and an assist before he did.

Title race finale brings about more questions than answers for Ferguson

It’s not over just yet, but Manchester City’s 1-0 win over rivals Manchester United has put Roberto Mancini’s side back in control of the title race. It was inevitable right? We’ve been told that ever since the Abu Dhabi billions were bestowed on the club they would eventually secure their first top flight title since 1968.

But what of the side they’ll be usurping upon the Premier League throne?

There are supposedly big summer plans in place to restore United’s dominance but has it been left too late? Watching Ryan Giggs, the best of the 1991 generation, and Paul Scholes, this season’s reserve team coach, line-up for United should be viewed with consternation for fans of the club.

Whilst times were good and they overhauled City’s 20 week lead at the top of the table, the two veterans came in for suitable praise. Scholes has been formidable in his six months out of retirement and Giggs has typically found the crucial touch whether it be the match-winning goal against Norwich or the pinpoint cross against Chelsea – all contributing to the steady accumulation of points.

But as United fell to their second league defeat to their noisy neighbours, questions must now be asked. The reliance on their ageing legs symbolises a bigger problem at United – something that may cost them a 20th league title. As romantic a storyline as it is to witness Scholes lace his boots up at the call of Sir Alex Ferguson, it points to deeper issues in a club that has been underfunded ever since the Glazer takeover.

Dissenting voices may have been drowned out through the tense adulation of the mother of all title races but they must surely still exist and it will be interesting to see if the green and gold scarves return to Old Trafford over the coming months.

Perhaps, as has been suggested, losing the Premier League to City will prove to be the catalyst for a revolutionary summer. There must come a time for Ferguson’s bloated squad to shed weight and perhaps a year in which they bowed out of both European competitions before schedule marks that moment.

Ferguson has built many great sides in his 20 years at Old Trafford and although the current crop have a youthful nucleus, the backbone is reinforced by two of the most experienced professionals in England. With Rio Ferdinand creaking into his mid-thirties it’s little wonder Ferguson attempted something different to kick off the 2011/12 campaign.

Maybe he underestimated the strength of City, or more likely overestimated the capabilities of his squad. The season began with an experiment – Anderson started eight of the first nine games, initially alongside Tom Cleverly before he succumbed to injury. The idea was to introduce a new version of his preferred passer and runner combination (as discussed extensively by Michael Cox).

It still took time for Michael Carrick to claim the key role he now occupies and it wasn’t until the 12th league game that he started his first game. Between then, Darren Fletcher was used before illness ended his campaign, Park Ji-Sung was tried out and Giggs was deployed centrally. Every move hinted at Ferguson attempting to replicate the passer and mover idea he prefers.

Injuries and a sky-blue juggernaut led Ferguson to abandon plans for not just the new-school of passer and mover but the entire game-plan. The favourite midfield pairing has been Scholes and Carrick – two passers. The latter has started the last 24 league games whilst Scholes has missed only one game altogether – the 1-0 defeat at Wigan.

Without heading too deep into the finer details of Ferguson’s reshuffle, one thing can be gleaned from his decisions. Paul Scholes’ retirement initiated the Anderson/Cleverly experiment. Though injuries disrupted this test, it’s clear faith was lost in Cleverly who has not started a Premier League game since 29th October. Though he has time on his side and could very well develop into the midfield passer Ferguson believes he could be, there are certain United midfielders no longer up to the job.

Specifically Anderson, who has underwhelmed for years in a red shirt and to a lesser extent Ferguson’s go-to ball of stamina Park Ji-Sung. The latter may finally be running out of steam and although it would be curt to pounce on his performance at the Etihad Stadium – the fact that it was his first start in three months suggests others are also querying his worth.

Though Park attempted to restrict Yaya Toure’s movements, ultimately this game played out similarly to United’s loss at Newcastle earlier in the year. It isn’t easy to have more of the ball than a team with two quality passers in Carrick and Scholes but on both occasions United saw less of the ball and were significantly overrun centrally. The loss at Newcastle showed how over-indulgent United had been by using the languid Dimitar Berbatov with the Scholes and Carrick axis and it’s little coincidence that he started just one game after that defeat.

The loss to City highlighted not only the strength of Mancini’s side but the problem Ferguson has within his squad. This summer will test his faith once more – will he give Cleverly, Anderson and Fletcher the chance to lay claim to Scholes’ position? Or will Ferguson finally snap up the world-class midfielder every transfer window threatens to deliver?

Of course, it’s worth reiterating, this race is not over. It’s quite conceivable City will succumb to a Newcastle team hunting a top four finish. But if, in two games time, Premier League bigwigs cart the trophy to the blue side of Manchester, the above will remain relevant.

A word of warning for Mancini though. His laconic suggestion to reporters that United remain in charge of the title race could do more harm to his team than good. As ‘Hey Jude’ blared from the Etihad Stadium’s speakers at full-time, he’d do well to lend his ear to a pertinent line:

“For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool.”

Fortunately the intense focus shown by his captain Vincent Kompany, suggest it is just Mancini engaging in the ridiculous mind-games so referenced in the last few weeks.

If City do emerge from the shadow of their rivals with a gleaming Premier League crown atop their head, ensuring a trophy-less season for the Red Devils, it will be Ferguson’s toughest challenge yet to wrest it back from them.

The Balotelli Conundrum – a defence of sorts

Another week, another drama in the life of Mario Balotelli. Except, this time, Manchester City’s maverick striker looks to have blown it as his red-card at the Emirates capped a reckless performance. Asked whether he’d look to sell the Italian in the summer, Roberto Mancini answered “probably” as his patience finally eroded.

The pair have a curious relationship: during his time as Inter manager, Mancini took the young Balotelli under his wing. Compliments had rained down on the striker after emerging in Serie A as a prodigal 17-year-old but as fantastic as some brief cameos were, the lasting impression he gave from his time in Italy was of unfulfilled potential and very obvious signs of a poor attitude.

Through his many shenanigans, Mancini has always been there to defend him – like a good manager is supposed to do. But following the defeat at Arsenal, it seemed Balotelli’s biggest fan had finally given up on him. Mancini stated: “City cannot afford to play Balotelli anymore. He will sit out for the rest of the season.” With that, it looks increasingly likely that the game against Arsenal was his final appearance in a sky blue shirt.

From setting fire to his bathroom to allegedly stamping on Scott Parker’s head and throwing darts at youth team players to almost breaking Alex Song’s leg, his time in England has been eventful to say the least. But for the great value his antics have provided, we’ve had many of the most entertaining stories about his off-pitch life rubbished by Balotelli as pure fabrication.

The British media has been quick to exploit his mystique through stories that played on his eccentric reputation. But they have been faster to switch tact, this time condemning a man harder than the studs that raked down Song’s shin. Listening to the drivel Jamie Redknapp spouts into the Sky Sports cameras is always an eye-gougingly painful experience but as he sat there laying into Balotelli he marked the moment in which the striker became the City scapegoat. As his never-ending stream of venom was fired at the Italian throughout the coverage, it became painfully apparent of just how tough a ride Balotelli is given. Would it be the same if Jack Wilshere had the same attitude? Probably not.

Initially it suited everyone to enjoy Balotelli’s every caper. Whilst City sat on top of the Premier League, his behaviour was tolerated. However, now eight points behind United, someone must take the blame for a remarkable implosion.

But of course, that is the duty of the media – they are there to laud the entertainment but to deliver the death knell on the ridiculous. What is irksome though, is the faux surprise that Balotelli could dare be as idiotic as he was on Sunday. The signs have been there throughout his entire career, not least his brief time in Manchester. He is still in the infancy of his career and will most definitely learn from his mistakes (see the apology issued on Monday) but to state that he has thrown the title through his poor performance is extreme hyperbole.

What about Carlos Tevez? Isn’t it funny how the striker that left City in the lurch as he headed to Argentina for a five month jolly is receiving less criticism than Balotelli? Watching coverage of Tevez’s impact as a substitute against Chelsea was embarrassing as the Match of the Day pundits praised his return as if it were a chivalrous act way beyond the call of duty.

For Balotelli’s mistakes, he has plodded through the entire campaign and returned a decent number of goals. His cool demeanour won the points when Tottenham visited the Etihad while his second goal against Sunderland was the spark as City salvaged a point. There is an odd expectation in Britain that every player should hare about the pitch, flying into tackles and giving ‘110%’ in every game. Perhaps that is why Tevez is let off for his ill-discipline? He looks like he cares when he plays, Balotelli doesn’t.

And where does Mancini figure in this story? For the past seven months, he has batted away questions on Balotelli with commendable commitment. However, perhaps it is more telling that as City’s title bid effectively ended, the Mancini life jacket hung around Balotelli’s shoulders was deflated for good. For Mancini, it is no longer worth hanging his reputation on the striker and it’s noticeable that a portion of his team-mates feel the same way. It is easier to pin the blame on Balotelli than take responsibility.

Mancini’s managerial credentials should be questioned, but they are not because he can use the Balotelli sideshow as a shield. It is a debate for another day, but Mancini’s faith in Balotelli has detailed a major flaw in his ability. I wonder if this would have happened at Old Trafford. Would Ferguson allow a 21-year-old to be so publicly vilified? Did he allow that to happen to a young and imprudent Wayne Rooney? No, he protected him through some brash episodes and barren Premier League years and he has emerged a more reliable character. Who expected Rooney to go a domestic season without a yellow card five years ago?

Mancini closed his on-screen interview with Sky Sports by suggesting Balotelli is wasting his talent. The insinuation was clear – if he did not address his commitment to the sport he has such a gift for, his career will be wasted. But maybe we should take a step back. The rebellious, eccentric side to his character and game are why so many football fans and pundits took Balotelli to their hearts. The ‘why always me?’ t-shirt, scoring a goal with his shoulder – they all endeared him to Premier League fans.

No-one can deny Balotelli let City down on Sunday but to call him the root of all problems at City is frankly ridiculous. I fear it is too late for him to recover his reputation and fully expect him to head back to Italy in the summer and that is a great shame. I’ll leave you with a James Milner quote from last summer:

“Mario is Mario, he does some strange things sometimes.”