Can City put their title hopes in the hands of Balotelli?
In a contest that reinforced, rather than diminished, Manchester City's Premier League title challenge there was a glaring wild card. And that, as ever, was Mario Balotelli. Two yellow cards, waved extravagantly by referee Martin Atkinson, led to a dismissal inside 18 minutes of being introduced as a second-half substitute.
As he walked to the touchline, Balotelli implored understanding from City manager Roberto Mancini, but was waved away. Balotelli is believed to have then kicked out at the away dressing room door in anger, with raised voices heard.
"If he damages the door, he pays," Mancini said. "Like his house."
That was in reference to the 21-year-old and his friends setting fire to his home after an indoor pyrotechnic display that was followed by Balotelli, gloriously for City supporters, scoring in the 6-1 demolition of Manchester United. He raised his shirt that afternoon to display the slogan "Why always me?" and he seemed to be mouthing similar words to Mancini as he trudged off yesterday.
The manager was far more conciliatory when he came to talk about his young protege afterwards and, in truth, the dismissal was harsh. But, given the nature of the first caution, for tugging back Glen Johnson, it was foolish also.
The second yellow came as Balotelli challenged Martin Sktrel with an outstretched arm, with the defender going down as if elbowed. He was not.
Yet Dirk Kuyt and Lucas apparently implored Atkinson to act, a reaction that Mancini picked up on. "Every time Mario does something, players provoke him," he said.
Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish was dismissive, urging Balotelli to "look in the mirror."
The truth lies between the two interpretations. What also appeared true is that from the moment Balotelli replaced Samir Nasri after 65 minutes he seemed surly. His body language betrayed a sense of unease.
He did not appear to enjoy the game. Maybe, as Mancini semi-seriously suggested, he was "tired" after the midweek Champions League trip to Napoli that appeared to affect several City players.
The bigger question is: given their ambitions, can City depend on Balotelli? Given that City hope to sell Carlos Tevez in January, can they carry on without a replacement and with only three strikers? Or will they harden their resolve to pursue Robin van Persie?
The Arsenal captain's name has been raised again in connection with City and there is interest, but Arsene Wenger would not countenance a sale before next summer and, even then, only if Van Persie refuses to sign a new deal.
Mancini is committed to Balotelli -- to his great talent, with nine goals in 10 games, and his character, hoping to mature him gradually. That will not take a "month," as Mancini ruefully remarked.
But there was much about this dismissal that was similar to his red card a year ago away to West Brom when he was sanctioned twice in quick succession for petulant acts. Has anything changed?
This was a match that City could have lost, but deserved to draw. That owed much to a superb goalkeeping display from Joe Hart but also to organisation and reserves of resilience. City off a thrillingly resurgent Liverpool, brilliantly marshalled by Lucas and with Charlie Adam a growing influence.
However, title-winners require quality. Can City rely on Balotelli? Doubts about him remain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)