Never mind Manchester City – even those closest to Mario Balotelli know that they can not bank on him hanging around for long. His family are only sure he will be joining them for dinner back at home in Brescia when there's a knock at the door and his large frame appears from behind it. They are actually encouraging him to be with them there a little less: the Balotelli clan know how much he loves company and hates solitude, but feel that too many flights back might be unsettling.
Roberto Mancini yesterday acknowledged the 20-year-old's struggle to adapt to his new life in Manchester. "Brian Kidd has told me that Cristiano Ronaldo had Mario's same problems when he arrived at United, and needed time to adjust," the City manager said. "Maybe he is homesick. He is 20 years old and it is the first time he is away from his family. He is missing his family. These are normal things."
The difference between the two players Kidd compared is the Italian's greater need of football's highs. He is not blessed with the greatest powers of application and Mancini knows that he needs the elixir of success if his time in Manchester is to stretch beyond next summer. Everyone tried to help yesterday when Balotelli started, with Carlos Tevez's tight hamstring keeping him to the bench. Nigel de Jong grabbed the striker by the cheeks and implored him to "Smile, smile!" after he had tapped in the first of his two penalties, which helped him to his first City hat-trick. Mancini's pointed applause and encouragement after the Italian's pass to Yaya Touré ballooned into the sky also revealed how he worries that his head may drop. And then there was Aston Villa, who gifted Balotelli perhaps the most comfortable hat-trick he will score in England, one which takes his tally to eight goals in 11 games.
Days like this will certainly make Mancini more comfortable about his £24m striker staying around. But they will have the reverse effect on Gérard Houllier. Randy Lerner insists that three months on from his appointment, the club are happy with the manager's approach, though the Frenchman admitted that six league defeats in seven make the club relegation material: "We are – definitely. We were before the game and we are now."
This time last year, Villa stood fourth in the Premier League on 35 points, this morning they are 15th on 20 points, and one of Houllier's more bizarre decisions was to send his players out on the pitch five minutes early for the second half.
The fans' reaction revealed that many are not comfortable with the manager and the players don't appear to be either. Houllier unconvincingly declared that it was acceptable for John Carew to have told him he was unfit for this game, having returned several days late from a Christmas break in Norway because of flight delays. "I have to accept that, there is snow everywhere," said Houllier, whose war of words over Carew's demands for a new contract last month concluded with Houllier calling Carew "stupid".
Stephen Ireland cried off with a knee problem but it was Houllier's achingly ramshackle defence which was the core problem, and the three goals City posted in the opening 27 minutes reflected as much. Eric Lichaj looked well out of his depth and the only doubt about City's eighth-minute penalty was why the American's decision to use both arms to restrain Balotelli as he bore down on goal did not warrant a dismissal. Lichaj went to the other extreme 20 minutes later, stepping back while Balotelli sized up the ball Brad Friedel had parried to his feet from David Silva's shot before tapping in, to conclude a 33-pass move.
In between the two goals, Joleon Lescott leapt early into Adam Johnson's corner to divert it goalwards. Barry Bennan's headed clearance was judged to have been made behind the line, though that looked like a fortunate decision for Mancini, who may find himself in hot water with the Football Association for declaring in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday that English referees "are prejudiced, to say the least, [against] City".
Balotelli wrapped up the hat-trick with a penalty, awarded after Marc Albrighton upended Johnson, but on the final whistle he walked straight from the field without taking the match ball or applause. City are starting to look a formidable force but Mancini's powers of man-management will be tested to the extreme in the five months to come.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1) Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Zabaleta; De Jong (Bridge, 77) Vieira; Johnson, Yaya Touré (Jo, 63), Silva (Milner, 58), Balotelli. Substitutes not used: Given, Boateng, Barry, Tevez.
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1) Fridel; Lichaj, Cuellar, Collins, Warnock; Petrov; Albrighton, Reo-Coker, Bannan, Downing; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Pires, Delfouneso, Delph, Clark, Guzan, Osbourne, Herd.
Booked Man City Milner Aston Villa Warnock, Lichaj
Man of the match: Silva.
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).
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