Here was a tale of two strikers, whose contrasting departures from the field tell us which of the two is keeping his manager awake in the small hours.
The smile Edin Dzeko wore as he left was born of a job well done. It was not just the headed goal he had so needed after a week in which his current manager had questioned him and his former manager, Steve McClaren, suggested we may have to wait until next season to see the best of him. The 24-year-old's display represented a significant blossoming of his partnership with Carlos Tevez, whose 50th City goal in 74 games underlined the club's overwhelming dependence on him. Tevez's clipped cross delivered Dzeko's goal; Dzeko's two exquisite touches released Tevez for his own breakaway goal.
Mario Balotelli was – and is – a different story. Dzeko's starting partner yesterday is by far the more naturally gifted of the two strikers; so naturally gifted, in fact, that the manager sees him as developing into a name that chroniclers of the sport will one day bracket with Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona. But his snood was cast to the floor as he disappeared down the tunnel when substituted after a clash of heads with Krystian Pearce and his removal to hospital last night, undergoing tests on his head injury, contributed to the sense of chaos which so often surrounds him. There is no damage but this was another of those days when Balotelli looked like a head case. To go with the flashes of acceleration which make the 20-year-old so dangerous to defenders was his sixth yellow card of a season in which he has started only eight games.
Mancini, who can tame the 20-year-old if anyone can, brushed off the striker's pique with his usual insouciance last night. "Sure, he was unhappy," Mancini said. "But it was our plan. We decided before the game that he would play only 60 minutes [because it was] the first game he played from the start [in two and a half months]. I explained before the game that we play in four days' time and then on Sunday and then on Wednesday."
Privately, Mancini is more frustrated about Balotelli than he is showing, and his side's struggles in the first half an hour of this game revealed that his journey towards an established strike force is still in its infancy. Dzeko ended the game well but only because Tevez had arrived to oil the wheels. The Bosnian is a target man who found the net so prolifically for Wolfsburg because he had wingers delivering high balls in to him. City don't have that dimension.
Paul Ince's defence was so pitifully frail as to paper over the problem, though the kind of run City might have in the FA Cup suggests they will need a better oiled machine than this. Everton may lie ahead in the quarter-finals if they beat Reading and City progress beyond Aston Villa, and as Mancini quite rightly pointed out last night: "We never beat Everton." The manager said there were no signs that Balotelli had suffered renewed pain in the knee which has troubled him all season, though the news that Shay Given has aggravated the shoulder he dislocated last season, during last week's warm-up in Greece, is a more serious preoccupation. Given will visit a London doctor this week.
Mancini also said in his programme notes that his players had "learned what the FA Cup is all about at Meadow Lane" though this was not evident in an opening 25 minutes yesterday during which Ince's side deconstructed the notion once more that a club with a £152m squad will always dominate one worth considerably less than £50,000. The uncertainty Joe Hart displayed when he flapped at and missed a first-minute cross ran through Mancini's side. Hart had clawed Alan Gow's 10th-minute free-kick around a post before Karl Hawley delivered the outstanding moment of the first half, bending the ball right-footed beyond Hart and against the angle of his left-hand post from 20 yards.
This shook City out of their stupor. Micah Richards finally delivered Dzeko a cross and watched him hammer a header straight at Stephen Darby. Then, Patrick Vieira rose to Aleksandar Kolarov's 37th-minute corner to deposit the first of two goals.
The Frenchman's second just before the hour mark was very similar. Tevez arrived and transformed things, first running across the box to collect Gareth Barry's left-footed clipped pass and lift it on to Dzeko's head for the third. Dzeko returned the favour five minutes later, sending Tevez through to round the goalkeeper. Dzeko ought to have had a second and Vieira a third though Micah Richards' concluding goal underlines a return to form which gives Mancini one less thing to worry about. With City such a work in progress, the manager has reason to be grateful for that.
Subs: Man City Tevez 7 (Balotelli, 60), Jo (Silva, 80), Barry (Y Touré, 81). Unused Taylor (gk), Kompany, Boateng, Nimely. Notts County Thompson 6 (Darby, 60), Gobern (Hughes, 80), Chilvers (Pearce, 90). Unused Burch (gk), Lee, Spicer, Smith. Booked: Man City Balotelli. Notts County Hawley. Man of the match Silva. Match rating 7/10. Possession Man City 54% Notts County 46%. Attempts on target Man City 13 Notts County 3.
Referee M Jones (Cheshire). Att 27,276.Reuse content