Roberto Mancini, the Manchester city manager, last night accused Liverpool players of deliberately agitating to get Mario Balotelli sent off, although he insisted the 21-year-old striker would be made to pay for any damage caused to the dressing room when he stormed out of Anfield on another bad day for his reputation.
The Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, issued a rapid and curt response to Mancini's claims against Martin Skrtel, insisting that Balotelli – whose third red card in 15 months was shown only 18 minutes after he appeared as a substitute – should take a look at himself in the mirror. "I think Balotelli got himself sent off," Dalglish said. "Sometimes if you look in the mirror, you get the answer. Sometimes he doesn't help himself. Sometimes he doesn't get the leeway. But if you help yourself you don't get that. Our boys didn't try to get Balotelli sent off in any way, shape or form."
City insist that Balotelli did not damage the two-inch thick Perspex away dressing-room door, which he slammed and kicked before marching to the team bus, vocally expressing his frustration in Italian. For his part, Mancini claimed that referee Martin Atkinson did not want to issue Balotelli a second yellow card for his barge into Skrtel.
"Every time Mario does something players provoke him," Mancini said. "[My] impression [was] that the referee gave a free-kick but didn't want to give a yellow card. After, all the Liverpool players went there [saying] 'yellow card, yellow card'. Mario should be careful because many players can provoke him." Asked if he felt Skrtel had provoked the referee to send Balotelli off, the manager replied: "I think so."
The aerial infringement on Skrtel was certainly more marginal than the shove on Glen Johnson, which earned his initial booking, only six minutes earlier. But the general demeanour of Balotelli – who in the same fixture last year suffered the ignominy of being taken off after coming on as a substitute – suggested that he was in a desperately poor frame of mind. Mancini suffered the indignity of having to order Balotelli to the dressing room after his compatriot stood on the touchline protesting his innocence to him after the sending off. The manager claimed he could not "remember" what the striker had said but staunchly defended him to the point of indulgence.
Reminded that he had said before that Balotelli was still young, Mancini, who was 47 yesterday, declared: "We said this one month ago, not one year ago. We can't change Mario in one month, two months, three months. He can change. Mario in one moment can do anything. In the last three months he has played well, scored a lot of goals." Balotelli has received four yellow cards, as well as the red, in the past five weeks, having previously gone through the season with a clean disciplinary record.
The 1-1 draw kept City five points clear at the top of the Premier League. However, it was one which owed everything to a colossal display from Joe Hart, whose diving save to deny Andy Carroll in the dying minutes will rank as one of the stops of the season. Liverpool's failure to break through after City lost Balotelli meant that they have recorded four successive home draws for the first time since 1971.
Mancini argued that Dalglish's side had benefited from having had no midweek exertions, unlike his own side in Naples, where Balotelli's trip included a verbal outburst against his clubs' PR staff and a pre-match pizza with his girlfriend, which one of City's coaches had advised against. "There was a difference with Liverpool because Liverpool were fresh," said Mancini. "We were maybe not 100 per cent against Naples [and] this pitch was not easy because Liverpool are a strong team."
The match was inevitably overshadowed by the death of Gary Speed, which led Dalglish to omit the Welshman's friend and international player Craig Bellamy from the side to face City. "There will be a lot of people saddened by what has happened," Dalglish said of the tragedy. "The most important people are his wife and two boys – your heart goes out to them. They will get support because he had a lot of good friends."