Monday 19 February 2018

Balotelli proves doubters wrong to get City career off to flying start

Timisoara 0
Manchester City 1

Mark Ogden

MARIO BALOTELLI ended a stunning Manchester City debut by limping off the pitch following three minutes of treatment after marking his first appearance with a match-winning goal in a breathtaking cameo performance against FC Timisoara.

Bankrolled by the Romanian oil baron Marian Iancu, the owner of Balkan Petroleum, Timisoara's squad, assembled at a cost in excess of £20m, has become the most expensive in their country. But despite surprisingly eliminating Shakhtar Donetsk in last season's Champions League qualifiers before being denied a place in the group stages by Stuttgart, Timisoara's oil-fuelled development cannot compare to that of City, whose starting line-up for this game cost an incredible £182m.

Mario Balotelli, the £22m acquisition from Inter Milan, had to be content with a place on the bench having expected to make his debut from the start against the Romanians.

Robinho, the British record £32.5m signing, was not even in the travelling party, 'working on his fitness' clearly a euphemism for finalising the details of a £16m transfer to Besiktas, who are expected to beat Turkish rivals Fenerbahce for the Brazilian's signature.

Yet despite the sum cost of City's team, their first-half display emphasised the distance Mancini and his players must travel before they come close to challenging the established powers for major honours.

The lack of cohesion within the City ranks that allowed Tottenham to dominate last Saturday's Premier League fixture at White Hart Lane was once again a glaring factor as Timisoara were allowed to take the game to City.

When Carlos Tevez, last season's top scorer, is forced to track back to collect the ball off centre-half Kolo Toure, it sums up the absence of creativity and flair in Mancini's team.

At times, with three defensive midfielders deployed once again by the Italian, it appeared as though City were playing a 7-0-3 formation - the gap between the midfielders and forwards was a gulf.

Timisoara, coached by the former Arsenal forward Vladimir Petrovic, were much more adventurous and they possessed potent pace when attacking City's unconvincing back-four. Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, playing at left-back, looked particularly ill at ease, but Timisoara could not take advantage of their bright start.

Alexandru Curtean might have won a penalty after being felled by Pablo Zabaleta on 13 minutes but for his theatrical fall to the ground, but the midfielder continued to worry City with his runs from deep with the equally impressive Cosmin Contra.

Lethargic and uninspiring prior to Balotelli's 56th minute introduction, City appeared destined to emerge from Romania with a draw at best against a well-organised home side.

But Balotelli, who arrived from Inter Milan last week, transformed City and spared Roberto Mancini's tactics from greater scrutiny with a stunning cameo performance that resulted in a goal, a booking and surely guaranteed a first start against Liverpool at Eastlands on Monday - providing a last-minute leg injury which resulted in treatment does not lead to him being sidelined.

City will now go into next Thursday's Play-Off second-leg as firm favourites to progress to the group stages thanks to Balotelli's goal, a close range tap-in from Emmanuel Adebayor's low cross.

Although City were able to gain a foothold in the game by enjoying a more equitable share of possession in the closing stages of the first half, they clearly had to improve after the break in order to avoid a potentially-costly defeat against home side.

Mancini's full-backs pushed forward with more urgency and David Silva, largely anonymous in the opening period, attempted to fill the creativity gap by dropping between the midfielders and forwards.

Mindful of the perils that come with failing to score an away goal in Europe, Mancini went against his natural defensive instincts by introducing Balotelli for his debut on 56 minutes in place of Gareth Barry.

Within two minutes, Balotelli had sent a right-foot strike over the bar from 20 yards before being spoken to by German referee Florian Meyer for clattering defender Cristian Scutaru while attempting to connect with a Silva cross.

Moments before scoring, Balotelli's almost teed up Yaya Toure, only to see the midfielder's shot hit the post.

But Balotelli's impact deserved a goal and he was rewarded when he converted Adebayor's cross. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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