On paper, they were strike options to thrill Wembley. The Premier League's top scorer in red and, in blue, a player of prodigious talent whom Roberto Mancini says will one day be "world class". Dimitar Berbatov and Mario Balotelli.
It was Berbatov who had the chance to shape the course of the FA Cup semi-final, though instead it proved to be one of those evenings when the Bulgarian's spirit saps before your eyes. The sequence is familiar now: an early chance missed, a few choice words for team-mates – always the junior ones who will take it – the eyes rolling, the head rocking, a scream at the sky.
He was deflated from the 15th minute, when Joe Hart raced into his path and stuck out a foot and a hand to block one of only two clear first-half chances. The second presented itself so soon that the striker had barely recovered. Nani's cross required a serious stretch and the Bulgarian collapsed in a heap after diverting the ball over the bar. He lay so still that you thought his afternoon might be over, and in a way it was. He was helped from the field and jogged back on but the moment had gone. When you have a fresh-faced young Mexican such as Javier Hernandez snapping at your heels and kicking his own on the bench, chances matter. Berbatov knew his had been blown and his game began to dissolve. A Pablo Zabaleta challenge took the ball clean off him, a searing diagonal ball from Michael Carrick dribbled miserably out of his control, a header took his nose into collision with Zabaleta's head. It was hardly bleeding copiously but he was back to the touchline for treatment. Inward and outward agonies.
Wayne Rooney watched all this uncomfortably – the tracksuit top over a shirt and tie didn't work – sucking nervously on a drink that provides energy he would not be needing.
City's predicament actually seemed worse for half an hour. It didn't say much for their own esprit de coeur that their captain, Carlos Tevez, could not tear himself away from the Argentinian team doctor in Milan to join his team-mates for their most significant game of the season and the same disconnectedness applied to those on the pitch. Balotelli's sole contribution by half-time was one of the semi-final's most memorable pre-match headlines: "Broken Telli needs a repair job". City could provide him neither with width, David Silva and a left-footed Adam Johnson on his "wrong" flank don't lend themselves to deep crosses, nor through passes. Balotelli is a striker who prefers to race off a defender's shoulder but when Silva finally got a ball to the Italian's feet it squirmed under them. When Yaya Touré finally ran through, free on goal, Balotelli was 10 yards back behind him.
We always knew that a day when the sheer force that City's millions have bought would prevail. It arrived on an evening which didn't find them at their most convincing, though close enough to United for the £24m Touré, who commanded the midfield like none other and was the game's outstanding player, to make the difference.
Touré's goal gave City zest and self-belief. Balotelli delivered some trickery, though more often he also delivered Mancini and David Platt from their seats in desperate frustration with him. There was an obligatory 10th booking and at the end Balotelli lifted his shirt provocatively to United's fans, Anderson barging into him and a slanging match with Rio Ferdinand ensued. "I'll throw him in jail," Mancini said, ironically, last night. But the doubts about Balotelli persist.
No one challenged Berbatov as he left the field, substituted with 15 minutes to play. His face told the story of a player who, for the second successive season, is undergoing a collapse in form and belief.Reuse content