herald

Saturday 23 September 2017

Mario puts his stamp on title battle

Controversial Italian plays hero and villain to put big dent in Spurs' hopes

IT was the kind of challenge which would have left Roberto Mancini issuing a pack of imaginary red cards, had his own side been on the receiving end, and if the absence of summary justice for Mario Balotelli was not bad enough, then the sight of him arrogantly dinking in the decisive penalty and winking at James Milner at the end of another extraordinary Premier League afternoon made it a whole lot worse.

It would have helped if Mancini had arrived to offer an explanation of how Balotelli had come to backheel Scott Parker in the head, as Harry Redknapp later put it, though we learned that his voice had failed him and were instead treated to his assistant David Platt's brand of "see no evil, hear no evil".

City are frustrated that Redknapp's claims a mere journalist could manage a club with City's wealth have been swallowed whole by the media. But a club so minded to do things the right way, surrendered some moral high ground to Redknapp yesterday. If this result proves pivotal to the title then Tottenham will be able to point to a Machiavellian streak in Manchester.

Redknapp was incredulous last night when it was put to him that the 21-year-old's image as a loveable eccentric was disguising a malicious streak. "A lovable eccentric? What do you think..?" The question had already been answered on the pitch, in the way that Balotelli deviously thrust down a left boot.



Flouncing

Perhaps it was Balotelli's reputation for flouncing out of interviews which explained the absence of any inquisition on the challenge in his brief post-match television chat. Someone needs to start ask him awkward questions and Redknapp indicated that he knows who. "It's up to their manager," he said.

His side had certainly lost in desperate fashion - Jermain Defoe advanced fractionally too late to steer Gareth Bale's fast, low cross into an empty net, seconds before Balotelli's presence on the pitch proved so significant - yet they had still lost and Redknapp knows he will not get a better time to play City. Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure are sorely missed at Eastlands.

Kompany would not have committed the same calamitous error as Stefan Savic, who sent a rudimentary punt from Younes Kaboul looping into Defoe's path for the goal which shifted the game back within Tottenham's ambit.

With those two missing, the balance of game was immeasurably delicate and controversy should certainly not disguise the product: another sublime episode in this season's incredible Premier League story.

It was one in which City seized the ascendancy and surrendered it, as nine extraordinary second-half minutes offered up four goals, then almost lost altogether before Ledley King was correctly judged to have scissored Balotelli in the penalty area.

The cautious first-half joust offered no hint of what was to follow.

Spurs' strategy involved severely restricting City's space and when David Silva was finally afforded enough of it to play in Nasri, 11 minutes after the interval, the Frenchman eased away from Kyle Walker to finish most emphatically.

When Edin Dzeko extracted the slightest near-post connection on a Nasri corner, four minutes later, and Joleon Lescott pounced before Parker could blink the game's course seemed set.

But back came Spurs to tie things up, before Balotelli won it at the death. City have questions to answer - concerning a player who is becoming a menace - but they will only really care that they have answered the bigger one, concerning their title credentials, and left the notion of Tottenham as champions looking rather dubious.

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