City starting to get best out of bad boy Balotelli
Manchester City 4
Aston Villa 0
NEVER mind Manchester City -- even those closest to Mario Balotelli know that they can not bank on him hanging around for long.
His family are only sure he will be joining them for dinner back at home in Brescia when there's a knock at the door and his large frame appears from behind it.
They are actually encouraging him to be with them there a little less: the Balotelli clan know how much he loves company and hates solitude, but feel that too many flights back might be unsettling.
Roberto Mancini yesterday acknowledged the 20-year-old's struggle to adapt to his new life in Manchester. "Brian Kidd has told me that Cristiano Ronaldo had Mario's same problems when he arrived at United, and needed time to adjust," the City manager said.
"Maybe he is homesick. He is 20 years old and it is the first time he is away from his family."
The difference between the two players Kidd compared is the Italian's greater need for football's highs. He is not blessed with the greatest powers of application and Mancini knows that he needs the elixir of success if his time in Manchester is to stretch beyond next summer.
Everyone tried to help yesterday when Balotelli started, with Carlos Tevez's tight hamstring keeping him to the bench. Nigel de Jong grabbed the striker by the cheeks and implored him to "smile, smile!" after he had tapped in the first of his two penalties, which helped him to his first City hat-trick.
Mancini's pointed applause and encouragement after the Italian's pass to Yaya Toure ballooned into the sky also revealed how he worries that his head may drop.
And then there was Aston Villa, who gifted Balotelli perhaps the most comfortable hat-trick he will score in England, one which takes his tally to eight goals in 11 games.
Days like this will certainly make Mancini more comfortable about his £24m striker staying around, but they will have the reverse effect on Gerard Houllier.
Randy Lerner insists that three months on from his appointment, the club are happy with the manager's approach, though the Frenchman admitted that six league defeats in seven make the club relegation material: "We were before the game and we are now."
Houllier unconvincingly declared that it was acceptable for John Carew to have told him he was unfit for this game, having returned several days late from a Christmas break in Norway because of flight delays. "I have to accept that, there is snow everywhere," he said.
Stephen Ireland cried off with a knee problem, but it was Houllier's achingly ramshackle defence which was the core problem, and the three goals City posted in the opening 27 minutes reflected as much.
Eric Lichaj looked well out of his depth and the only doubt about City's eighth-minute penalty was why the American's decision to use both arms to restrain Balotelli as he bore down on goal did not warrant a dismissal.
Lichaj went to the other extreme 20 minutes later, stepping back while Balotelli sized up the ball Brad Friedel had parried to his feet from David Silva's shot before tapping in, to conclude a 33-pass move.
In between the two goals, Joleon Lescott diverted Adam Johnson's corner goalwards. Barry Bannan's headed clearance was judged to have been made behind the line, though that looked like a fortunate decision for Mancini.
Balotelli wrapped up the hat-trick with a penalty, awarded after Marc Albrighton upended Johnson, but on the final whistle he walked straight from the field without taking the match ball or applause.
City are starting to look a formidable force, but Mancini's powers of man-management will be tested to the extreme in the five months to come. (© Independent News Service)