Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Balotelli is an asset and a problem Manchester City can live with

Maybe only Mario Balotelli could quite so effectively deface a game that he came to decide in its last moments.

It was a superb game and Balotelli is, of course, a superb talent but that didn't seem to matter so much when he delivered a stamping on the head of Scott Parker with what seemed to be cold deliberation.

The last World Cup final referee, Howard Webb, missed the incident but it seems inevitable that the FA will be required to intervene.

This grotesque moment came in a game that might just have decided the Premier League title, a collision which burnt slowly and eventually glowed. Balotelli, of course, can do almost anything. Without, apparently, any reflection on the flashpoint with Parker he was composed enough to lure a previously excellent Ledley King into a tackle that made a penalty – and City's victory – almost inevitable.

It certainly finished that way when Balotelli produced another example of his trademarked nonchalance when given firing-squad duties. The enigma, of course, will rage on as long as Balotelli wears any colour of football shirt. His ability to be both exquisitely creative on the field and at times eccentrically kind off it are qualities that are forever thrust into a darker place.

In football the greatest requirement, apart from the enviable levels of skill that Balotelli touches so frequently, is a degree of professional consistency. If there was any doubt about the inherent contradictions of this young player it surely rested in the fact that he had decided this hugely significant match at a time when a vigilant referee would already have dispatched him to the dressing room.

Certainly, the Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, made it clear that if he envied his City rival Roberto Mancini's three points – and a massive stride towards the title – he could hardly imagine having to deal with questions about Balotelli. He said that he was happy it wasn't his problem, having to react to something that you should never see on a football field.

Certainly, if Redknapp felt great angst at the late slippage of a match which his team had appeared to have rescued with nerve and another stunning example of the extraordinary talent of one of the game's other superstars, the less tumultuous Gareth Bale, he was quite content to leave the questions of what anyone does about Mario beyond the northern end of the M1.

Bale, who in one morning headline was announced as a "£150m man", scored a goal which, if not quite worthy of such a breathtaking fee, was certainly one of the highest quality.

Bale, who is said to be at the top of the shopping lists of such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, started as tentatively as any of the major figures on either side. But like Sergio Aguero and, more surprisingly, the recently lukewarm Samir Nasri for City, and his team-mate Luka Modric, he came beautifully to the pitch of the game. His equalising goal, after Jermain Defoe had exploited a moment of City defensive slackness which brought a full blast of Italian rage from Mancini, brought a total hush to the stadium. It had that kind of impact. The formidable Joe Hart didn't have a chance to react, nor did anyone who had imagined so recently that City had taken an unshakeable hold on the game.

Tottenham had come here shouting the odds about their willingness to go toe to toe with City, not to mention provide a crushing example of what could be produced in the way of team-building on roughly half the budget. It was a stance that could have gone horribly, humiliatingly wrong but the worst that Tottenham did was lose a marvellous game in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Above all, Tottenham showed that whatever the outcome of this title race, they have announced themselves as a serious team playing some of the most beguiling football available in the Premier League. Bale was especially impressive and, certainly, it is hard not to believe that Tottenham will come under immense pressure to sell him at the end of the season. Apart from that spectacular equaliser, he came within an inch of delivering the coup de grâce. With pace and confidence that were reminiscent of the impact he made in Tottenham's Champions League campaign last season, he carried the ball down the left and played a perfect cross into the path of Defoe.

Later Redknapp lamented the fact that Defoe had probably changed his run pattern by just a fraction, a fact which denied Tottenham a perfect strike.

For City all this, of course, is in the margins of a dramatic day. Balotelli is Balotelli, an asset and a problem that Mancini has decided he is prepared to live with through both the ups and the downs. Yesterday he may have counted himself ahead in a difficult equation, but then he hasn't heard from the FA yet.

Belfast Telegraph


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