Tuesday 24 April 2018

Balotelli rises above crowd abuse as Mancini's men gain crucial edge over Porto

Porto 1 Manchester City 2
Europa League rd of 32, 1st leg

Chris Bascombe

the racism epidemic which has poisoned English football this season last night followed Manchester City to continental Europe. The club's executives were appalled by the treatment of their striker Mario Balotelli during this victory in Porto.

Their resentment was made known at half-time after they complained that Balotelli was being subject to monkey chants by a section of the home crowd. The abuse was not audible in all areas of the ground, but club officials were adamant their young striker was being racially abused.

When he was substituted on 78 minutes, Balotelli was again targeted by a small proportion of Porto supporters. City were already contemplating a response to the authorities while the game was progressing.

The incident overshadowed an outstanding performance by Roberto Mancini's side, as they fought back from a goal down to take a lead back to Manchester.

Inevitably, Balotelli was involved in City's equaliser -- an own goal by Alvaro Pereira -- when he forced the defender to divert the ball into the net while fending off the Italian.

Sergio Aguero, his late replacement, then sealed victory on 82 minutes to round off the most impressive European away performance of Mancini's reign.

With the exception of the Greek economy, nothing has been as unstable in Europe this season as the performances of English clubs.

Manchester City have proven to be particularly uneasy travellers since returning to continental competition. This victory was one of only two out of their eight foreign trips.

Within 27 minutes, they had more damage to repair in the Estadio do Dragao, the calibre of the Portuguese side all too apparent when Silvestre Varela gave the home side the lead.

With the Premier League entering its key stage, it was suggested the Europa League would become an unwanted diversion. However, given how demonstrably formidable Porto proved to be on their own turf, the reassessment of this competition's standard was instant. Such was the quality on show, this could easily have masqueraded as a Champion League game.

As City tried to claw their way back against opponents as dangerous as most they have met in the Premier League all season, there was no doubt where the real diversions have been for Roberto Mancini.

The fixture itself seemed a sub-plot beforehand, as he fended off more questions about where the Carlos Tevez circus was next pitching its tent and expressed his concerns about Mario Balotelli's capacity for collecting suspensions.

If a glamorous European football fixture is considered secondary, while wretched hour upon hour is dedicated to the travails of an insubordinate rogue earning £195,000 a week, a serious rethink is needed.

Yaya Toure made a welcome return, with the only debatable choice, the preference of Balotelli ahead of Aguero from the start. The Argentinian's late arrival was to prove invaluable.

Less than a minute in, Toure's marauding presence appeared to give City a more commanding look. One typical rampage through the heart of midfield put Porto's Danilo on a stretcher as he hurt himself fouling the Ivory Coast man.

The incident seemed to spark the visitors as Porto goalkeeper Helton was called on three times in quick succession, first palming away Balotelli's glancing header, then producing replica saves to deny Micah Richards and Samir Nasri.

The warnings were also clear. Gael Clichy headed a Rolando effort off the line, and the Europa League champions took the lead to end an encouraging City spell in the 27th minute. When the opening goal arrived, it was pretty basic stuff, as Hulk had time and space to pick out Verala six yards out for a simple tap-in past Joe Hart.

Balotelli almost responded immediately, sent clear by Nasri, but, seemingly awaiting a linesman's flag he volleyed too close to Helton.

City were unfortunate to be behind at half-time, but a blistering start to the second half restored parity.

Richards slammed a ferocious right footer against the post, and Balotelli shrugged off the taunts to play a key role in the 55th minute equaliser.

Toure's diagonal ball was misjudged by Pereira as he tried to challenge the Italian striker, and it comically bounced off the defender's shoulder beyond the advancing Helton.

Balotelli didn't celebrate. He rarely does, but it may have reflected his seething anger at the reaction towards him from the home supporters. His replacement Aguero then converted after a brilliant passing move involving Toure and Gareth Barry, tapping in at the far post.

Mancini had been given little opportunity to talk much about this game before kick-off. Sadly, for different reasons, it was likely to be the same again after the match. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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