Balotelli rewards Mancini's faith as City enhance title credibility

Striker leads side in easy win over Villa and closer to top spot as United are held by Birmingham
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Long before Manchester City teased their neighbours over Carlos Tevez, the two clubs duelled over Dimitar Berbatov. United won that dispute but for the Bulgarian's first two seasons at Old Trafford City fans probably felt they had had a lucky escape.

No more: it was Berbatov with his 15th goal of the season who last night knocked City off the top of the Premier League. True, they had only been there for three hours after beating Aston Villa 4-0, largely due to a hat-trick from Mario Balotelli, but to judge from the sight of the league table at 5pm on City's electronic scoreboard they enjoyed the feeling.

Not that United were celebrating overmuch. A controversial last-minute goal from Lee Bowyer denied them victory at Birmingham City and enabled the home team to finish the year outside the relegation zone.

Balotelli's treble underlined just why Roberto Mancini has placed such faith in his troubled compatriot. When he is good, he is very, very good. That has been Mancini's theme since spending £24m to bring the controversial 20-year-old to Eastlands and yesterday Balotelli offered a timely display of his potential. After sliding in his second penalty to complete the treble there was even the hint of a smile. But Mancini admitted that Balotelli was struggling to settle in Manchester. "I think that's normal," said Mancini. "He is 20, it's his first time away from [Italy] and he's missing his family."

Tottenham Hotspur climbed above Chelsea into fourth after winning with 10 men for the second successive game. Younes Kaboul was shown a red card for a headbutt on Newcastle's Cheik Tioté. Aaron Lennon had already put Spurs ahead and Gareth Bale clinched the win with his 10th goal of the season. Chelsea play Bolton Wanderers tonight.

At the bottom Fulham eased the pressure on Mark Hughes with a first away win in 27 attempts. Chris Baird was the unlikely match-winner, scoring twice in a 2-0 win at Stoke to escape the bottom three. "This week it was me under pressure; next week it will be somebody else," said Hughes.

Comments