Sunday, April 8, 2012
Mario on the brink
Kevin Palmer, Emirates Stadium
On the day when Manchester City's crumbling title challenge came to a predictably grizzly end, the career of their maverick, reckless and soon-to-be former striker Mario Balotelli was thrown into the balance.
• Premier League: United eight clear
• Mancini: Balotelli could be sold
• The Balotelli controversies
• Team of the Week
• Sunday Premier League gallery
Mikel Arteta's late winner may have been the most significant statistic on an afternoon when Manchester United all but sealed their 20th English league title, yet this day will also be remembered as Balotelli's last as a Manchester City player.
Balotelli's liaisons with the same escort girl who hit the headlines for her fling with Wayne Rooney a couple of years ago dominated the tabloid newspaper agenda in England on Easter Sunday morning and instead of responding to that embarrassment in a responsible and professional manner, the fallen idol of the City faithful produced a performance that was as selfish as it was unforgivable.
After City had fallen eight points behind United prior to kick-off, Balotelli needed to produce a display that would prove all the hassle that comes with him is worthwhile. Instead, he chose to indulge us with his most petulant display yet. From first minute to last, the sulking Italian looked primed to receive a red card and the only surprise was that it came seconds before the end of a game that he had contributed little or nothing towards.
Mancini admitted should have been sent off for a horrid tackle on Alex Song in the first half, but the City manager didn't stop there, as he suggested the 22-year-old may be forced out of football altogether unless he completely alters his behaviour on and off the pitch.
"Mario has to realise that he is in trouble if he does not change now because he cannot carry on like this," began Mancini, who offered up an extraordinary post-match press conference.
"I did not understand how bad his tackle on Song was until I saw it on the TV replay. He should have been sent off at that point. Then he finally got sent off in the last minute and what more can I say? He has to understand that he will not be able to play at the top level until he appreciates what is needed.
"I must have 11 players on the field in every game to win big matches and with Mario, this is not certain. I have finished my work with him now. There is nothing more I can do.
"Mario will not play again for us this season and I think City will probably try and sell him in the summer. His behaviour is unacceptable and I hope he can change. Not for my sake, but for his own. This cannot carry on if he wants to play football."
The reaction of City keeper Joe Hart after Balotelli's late red card summed up just what his own team-mates think of their out of control team-mate. Gesturing to the bench and questioning why the striker was still on the field after he tried time and again to get sent off, it was a suggestion that Mancini has to take his share of the blame for allowing his favoured son to remain on the pitch for so long.
Not for the first time, Mario had let down the manager who has shown so much faith in his wayward talents, with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger joining the debate by suggesting Balotelli had 'flirted with a variety of orange card challenges' before he was finally banished from the pitch for a late lunge on Bacary Sagna.
Balotelli's bizarre display epitomised City's demise in so many ways. The brash, arrogant title-winning style of the first half of the season was nowhere to be seen at the Emirates Stadium. Outfought by opponents who wanted the three points more from the off, Arsenal got the victory they deserved at the last thanks to Arteta's thrilling long-range strike.
Mancini was quick to praise Sir Alex Ferguson's champions-elect after his side's defeat, as he suggested a lack of title-winning nous has cost his side in the end.
"I believe United have won 11 games out of 12 and the run they have been on in the last few weeks has been exceptional," said the City boss. "They have more experience than us at this stage of the season and I believe that has been crucial. We will not give up, but the title race is probably over."
The sight of Arsenal fans joyously performing their own version of 'the Poznan' goal celebration City supporters have delighted in of late will be the abiding memory of a day that may well have brought down the curtain on another era at Manchester's 'other' club.
Indeed, had Arsenal taken their chances in this game, the scale of their victory may well have embarrassed a City side that looked laboured from the off, with their inability to create genuine scoring chances confirming the suspicion that their belief has long since evaporated.
Arsenal's unconfined joy was contrasted by the glum faces of City's lavishly wealthy owners perched in the front row of the Emirates Stadium directors' box, as their first great attempt to buy their way to Premier League glory has imploded in alarming fashion.
Most will now expect the world's richest club to rip up their script and start all over again and while manager Mancini has made enough progress over the last two years to get another crack at winning the Premier League, a handful of the team he has struggled to control will be sacrificed as they have failed the ultimate title test.
Balotelli will be the first liability leaving City this summer and a few more of his highly paid team-mates will not be far behind him.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mikel Arteta -
It needed a moment of magic to crack this game open and just when it seemed as if a scoreless stalemate was inevitable, Arteta struck gold. It was his finest moment in an Arsenal shirt.
CITY VERDICT: Jaded, bedraggled and beaten, Roberto Mancini and his squad look like a team that knew their title challenge had ended even before this game kicked off. Many of this team will now wonder whether their names will appear on the unwanted list this summer.
ARSENAL VERDICT: "It was a well deserved three points and this victory shows how much we have progressed this season," said boss Arsene Wenger. "We have produced some outstanding performances at home in recent weeks and to take 24 points from a possible 27 confirms we are performing very consistently. We are enjoying the challenge of trying to finish third and have to push on now."