Wigan Athletic 0 Manchester City 2: It was not a promising terrain to ask Mario Balotelli to find the net for the first time since March: one of those blisteringly cold nights in northern England when players blow steam towards an ink jet sky.
He huffed and puffed, he missed and miskicked, but ultimately the 22-year-old provided evidence that when he is on a football field things may happen. Insulated to the last inch by gloves and socks up to his thighs, his goal broke a frustrating deadlock and a valiant Wigan side who tired at the last. It also added to the sense that the two Manchester sides who contest for honours on Sunday week will be the two doing the serious competing next May.
The game did not suggest that it will be a procession. Searching questions were asked of Manchester City and there were not always, or even often, answers. Wigan were without regulars and also without either a win or even a goal against the Premier League champions in their last five encounters, but they showed no fear. They were the faster and more fluid of the sides in a first half played at high tempo, tramping with ease through the City midfield.
On the basis of the 58 minutes he lasted, it was difficult to see the point of Javi Garcia, who was no more able to distribute than to be destructive. City need resilience in the middle, to allow Yaya Touré the freedom to operate in the advanced role where he began this game. He had withdrawn to a deep-lying role before the stalemate was broken. That was around about the time Wigan were gifted one of those kinds of moments on which nights turn: a well measured cross by James McCarthy which found the Ivorian Arouna Koné with time to pick his spot with a header. But the Ivorian got his angles terribly wrong.
That City should have gone up the other end to score was testament to the judgement of their manager Roberto Mancini, which has been questioned this season. When it came to which striker might be withdrawn just after the hour the good money was on Edin Dzeko – back to the bench after the weekend's blank sheet at Stamford Bridge – replacing Balotelli. Aleksandr Kolarov arrived for Sergio Aguero, instead. "We thought that Mario in this moment was more fresh than Sergio [even though] he didn't play like he knows he can play," Mancini said later.
It took a minute for the decision to be vindicated. When Ali al-Habsi in the Wigan goal failed to gather Gareth Barry's shot, Balotelli pounced – the Italian's second stab delivered his first goal since he punished Sunderland on 31 March.
The way Wigan stood off James Milner, Mancini's second substitute, in the 72nd minute was punished in equal measure when the Englishman unleashed a formidable swerving effort. Milner limped off soon later with a hamstring injury but City were home. "No. No," Mancini insisted, late last night, when asked if Balotelli would be leaving in January.
Wigan warranted the praise their manager lavished on them. "We should have been a bit more patient with our final ball. The disappointment was that for the 60 minutes we were [on top] we couldn't score a goal," Roberto Martinez said. "I don't want to be a Wigan Athletic representative saying we are happy to lose against the champions."
Mancini feels it could be a three-horse race for the Premier League title, despite another Chelsea goalless draw last night. "In February if teams are playing in the Champions League it can change everything. I think Chelsea can compete."
This league makes fools of November predictions but it doesn't presently feel like others will muscle in on Manchester business.
* City's assistant coach David Platt has been given a two-match European ban after being sent to the stands during last week's 1-1 Champions League draw with Real Madrid, when City were eliminated.
Man of the Match Balotelli.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Halsey (Lancashire).