Match Report: Gianfranco Zola is full of belief in Mario Balotelli but Manchester City end the Watford dream

Manchester City 3 Watford 0

the etihad stadium

When it comes to his fellow countrymen,
Gianfranco Zola proved a sight easier for Roberto Mancini to deal with than
Mario Balotelli. The man who drives the oxymoron of a camouflaged Bentley
stayed hidden on the bench until, with his side 2-0 up and 20 minutes remaining,
the Manchester City manager decided it was safe to let him loose.

He arrived to a cocktail of jeers and cheers and once he was on the pitch he performed rather better than he had on his last appearance in a sky-blue shirt that had seen him dragged off during the Manchester derby.

His first intervention might have brought a third goal but Jonathan Bond, Watford's teenage keeper, parried the shot and Carlos Tevez was unable to ram home the rebound. Then, just as the stadium was starting to empty and James Milner was being announced as man of the match, he did the same.

Again the shot was half-saved but this time Marcos Lopes tucked it home. Lopes is a Portuguese youth international, just turned 17, who was signed from Benfica. "Marcos plays with a smile on his face," said the City assistant manager, David Platt. "He won't let this go to his head."

It is a long time since a smile appeared on Balotelli's square-jawed face. He was the first off the pitch and, while Mancini stood with his back to him, the player was embraced by Zola, who had briefly managed him for the Italian Under-21 side.

After the confrontation with Mancini during training on Thursday, Balotelli needed a smile and the Watford manager always has one to hand.

"I have a real affection for Mario," said Zola. "I do care about him and when he came on he caused us so many problems. You have to understand his potential and you have to master it.

"It is not down to me to say whether he should stay at Manchester City or go. I am only concerned that a young man with a lot of potential should be allowed to shine." This tie did not always shine but it did glow. The Etihad Stadium was almost full, the away end was crammed with yellow shirts, balloons and sticks of foam and both sets of supporters celebrated their manager to the tune of 'Volare'.

Zola was right to argue that, although Manchester City deserved to win, the margin was rather flattering. Unlike his record in the Champions' League, Mancini has won domestic cups wherever he has managed. This year's FA Cup is a priority.

Only Joe Hart was rested and Costel Pantilimon performed with more conviction than he had in his last appearance here – the chaotic League Cup tie when he conceded four times to Aston Villa.

His most crucial intervention came just after Tevez had put Manchester City ahead, striking a free-kick with boots the colour of clementines so powerfully that Bond did well to dive before it crashed into the net.

Watford are one of the best footballing sides outside the top flight and now a counter-attack found Fernando Forestieri, one of many young players on loan from Udinese, owned by the same family that runs Watford. He grew up in Lionel Messi's home city of Rosario and possesses a physical resemblance to the Argentinian. However, Messi would have put the ball past Pantilimon rather than allow him to make the save.

That was Watford's chance and when Milner, who so tormented Daniel Pudil he was withdrawn during the interval, sent over a cross, Gareth Barry's header ensured it had gone completely.

Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Pantilimon; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Garcia (Sinclair, 74), Barry; Milner, Tevez, Silva (Lopes, 87); Dzeko (Balotelli, 70).

Watford (3-5-2): Bond; Doyley, Nosworthy, Ekstrand; Cassetti, Eustace (Battocchio, 84), Chalobah, Forestieri (Mujangi Bia, 63), Pudil (Neuton, h-t); Vyrda, Deeney.

Referee: Phil Dowd

Man of the match: Milner (Manchester City)

Match rating: 6/10

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