Balotelli hat-trick gives Manchester City taste of life at top
Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 0: Controversial striker Mario Balotelli's first Manchester City hat-trick put the Blues top of the Barclays Premier League.
Local rivals Manchester United had the chance to make it the briefest of stays as they took on Birmingham in the late kick-off, but that did not stop the table being flashed on big screens at the final whistle.
No matter where City end this week, or this season for that matter, it is clearly not a fleeting position for a club so used to watching the big prizes being handed out rather than actually competing for them.
And in Balotelli, City have a player manager Roberto Mancini will surely want to keep despite the repeated negativity that has surrounded the youngster for all manner of reasons.
With Carlos Tevez rested, the 20-year-old strode confidently onto centre-stage, exhibiting audacious self-belief to score two penalties, either side of a three-yard tap-in, which helped take his City tally to an impressive eight goals in 11 appearances.
On a dank Manchester day, the half-time whistle brought jubilation for the home fans, who were already certain of their fate, and total despair for the visiting contingent.
Three wins from 13 matches for manager Gerard Houllier prior to this debacle could partly be explained away by the chronic injury-list the Frenchman has had to contend with.
The excuse is wearing a bit thin though judging by the boos which greeted Michael Oliver's shrill blast of the final whistle, the second time Villa had reason to thank the 25-year-old rookie referee.
Had Oliver opted to dismiss Eric Lichaj for blatantly pulling down Balotelli as he charged onto David Silva's seventh-minute pass, a real thrashing might well have ensued.
As it was, the penalty proved sufficient, which Balotelli finished nervelessly, walking up to the ball before sending Brad Friedel the wrong way.
There was more than an element of controversy about City's second as Joleon Lescott leapt to reach Adam Johnson's corner at the near-post, glancing it to the far where Barry Bannan headed it away, although not after the assistant referee felt it had crossed the line.
If he takes notice of such things, Balotelli would have woken to news of his apparent homesickness being made public knowledge.
Dealing with unhappiness within his squad has almost become a weekly occurrence for Mancini.
But he knew the downsides to Balotelli's combustible character when he brought the 20-year-old to England from Inter Milan and must therefore have been expecting such a problem at some stage.
Last week, Mancini chided the Italy star for not smiling enough.
He did not get that response from the first goal. He did after Balotelli's second though, which again was created by Silva, who is rivalling Tevez as player of the season.
After exchanging passes with Yaya Toure inside the box, Silva cut inside a couple of weak challenges before aiming a low, curling shot for the far post.
Friedel did get a hand to the ball but could only push it straight to Balotelli, who tapped home, then raced to acknowledge Silva, his happiness made clear in the most appropriate manner.
Had deflections from goalbound shots from Toure and Silva ended up in the net, Villa would have been staring at utter humiliation.
Having got into the smiling habit, Balotelli found he could not stop.
Rarely can anyone have exerted so little effort in completing a hat-trick as he hungrily grabbed the ball after Johnson had been sent tumbling by Marc Albrighton.
If anything, the second walk-up was even more leisurely than the first. Too slow indeed for Friedel not to commit himself. Once the American reached the point of no return, Balotelli made him look silly by knocking the ball into the other corner.
This time there was a rueful grin as the Italian acknowledged his achievement before a broader smile as he was embraced by delirious team-mates.
It was the end of the scoring, but the difference in class from two sides who were both battling to break into the top four last season was depressingly evident for Houllier, who has a huge task to prevent a downward spiral spinning totally out of control.