It was not a promising terrain to ask Mario Balotelli to find the net in the league 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 rolled up socks, his winner broke a frustrating deadlock and a valiant Wigan Athletic side who could not quite hold on to the end. It also added to the sense that the two Manchester sides who compete for honours on Sunday week will be the two doing the serious competing next May.
Wigan were 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.
On the basis of the first 45 minutes, it was hard to see the point of Javi Garcia, whose distribution was no better than his tackling. City need resilience in the centre, to allow Yaya Touré the freedom to play in the advanced role where he began the game. They had little. Maicon had his moments too. Jean Beausejour cut the Brazilian inside out to ease into the area and bent a shot with the outside of his boot which Vincent Kompany threw himself in front of.
Balotelli, restored to start in only his sixth Premier League game of the season was considerably less sharp than his mohican. He looked like he was going to have one of those nights when a first time pass left him on his backside. Emmerson Boyce's several biting challenges from behind made the first half an uncomfortable return for him.
Balotelli's early second half miss felt like another premonition. Regaining his footing after disappearing behind off the back of the defence to receive David Silva's well weighted cross, he headed wide.
Wigan gratefully seized the let-off but then spurned the night's outstanding chance on 55 minutes when James McCarthy's own well-measured cross found Arouna Koné with time to pick his spot with a header but the Ivorian forward got his angles dreadfully wrong.
But it still felt like a question of whether the Wigan defence could hold on or not.
Mancini persisted with Balotelli – removing Aguero, rather than the Italian, to make way for Aleksandar Kolarov, and within a minute the 22-year-old pounced. When Ali Al-Habsi failed to gather Gareth Barry's shot, the Italian's second stab delivering his first goal since he punished Sunderland on 31 March.
The way Wigan stood off James Milner, Mancini's second substitute, was punished in equal measure when the Englishman unleashed a formidable swerving effort. Milner limped off soon later but City were home.Reuse content