Balotelli shows his passion against an indifferent Rovers
Manchester City 3 Blackburn Rovers 0: The Italian striker broke into a grin which was either due to his goal or love of his girlfriend
It says everything about Manchester City's changed status that in a Premier League season which has thrown up some strange results, the club once famed for inconsistency have become the great dependables. City at the Etihad can only mean one thing these days: a home win. This was their 18th in succession in the league, and there can have been few more comfortable. On an evening when Joe Hart had just one save to make, they prevailed through goals from Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko and, in the process, climbed five points clear of Manchester United at the top.
Roberto Mancini claimed before this match that his team had 13 Champions' League finals to play but this felt as complicated as a Europa League qualifier in San Marino. It means City can now sit back and see if United slip up at Norwich today, and the pressure is unlikely to relent next weekend with City hosting Bolton and United visiting Tottenham.
City had entered this contest looking to complete a full year of consecutive home victories. The last time they failed to take three points here in the Premier League was a 1-1 draw with Fulham a year ago tomorrow. In 18 straight wins since, they have scored 52 goals and the only real surprise here was it took them half an hour to get off the mark given how close they came to a lightning start.
Mancini's men had scored after 19 seconds in their midweek Europa League win over Porto; here barely a minute had been played when they opened up Rovers down the right and Balotelli drew a smart save from Paul Robinson at his near post.
With Rovers sitting deep, they contained City successfully for a while, although Robinson still had to keep out a fierce Adam Johnson shot and a deflected Balotelli free-kick. It was from one of the visitors' rare forward forays that City made the breakthrough. Yaya Touré intercepted the ball inside his half, played it to David Silva and the Spaniard carried it forward before feeding the overlapping Aleksandar Kolarov on the left. When the Serbian's cross came in Balotelli had ghosted in front of Grant Hanley and was free at the near post to turn a rising shot past Robinson. It was his 10th League goal of the season. "I didn't realise how good a finish it was," said David Platt, City's first-team coach, before hailing Balotelli's all-round performance. "He was disciplined, his work rate was exceptional, his temperament was good."
The Italian broke into a grin, although whether that was down to his goal or the declaration of love for his girlfriend that he promptly displayed on his T-shirt ("Ti amo Raffaella") is anyone's guess. With that goal Blackburn established an unwanted top-flight record of 26 games without a clean sheet from the start of the campaign and dropped back into the bottom three. City were soon threatening further punishment. Robinson denied Silva and then kept out Vincent Kompany's back-heel volley from a corner with Touré turning the rebound wide. On the stroke of half-time Aguero then dragged a shot across goal after getting between two defenders.
Aguero soon made amends for that miss although he had Robinson to thank. The goalkeeper made a hash of dealing with Silva's corner and Aguero buried the loose ball into the net. Watching this, it was hard to see how Blackburn had beaten Manchester United 3-2 on New Year's Eve, although that day they had Christopher Samba – who joined Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala on Friday – at the heart of their defence, and also Steven N'Zonzi in the midfield.
The Frenchman was only fit enough to play as a substitute because of tonsillitis and Steve Kean lamented his absence. "Our problem was more when we got the ball we never kept it like we normally do," said Blackburn's manager. "[When N'Zonzi came on] was probably when we kept the ball best."
The biggest moment of concern for City's defence came when Morten Gamst Pedersen went down under a Nigel de Jong challenge in the home area but referee Mike Jones judged that the Dutchman had made contact with the ball.
At the other end, even in second gear, City were good enough to get a third. Dzeko had been on the pitch a minute when he met Kolarov's left-wing cross with a header directed down into the turf and up past Robinson. With Aguero, Balotelli and Dzeko now on 39 goals between them, who needs Tevez?
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Touré (Milner, 86), De Jong; Johnson (Pizarro, 71), Silva, Aguero; Balotelli (Dzeko, 79).
Blackburn (4-1-4-1): Robinson; Orr, Dann, Hanley, Martin Olsson; Petrovic (Nzonzi, 69); Hoilett, Formica (Rochina, 69), Pedersen, Marcus Olsson; Yakubu.
Referee Mike Jones.
Man of the match Silva (Manchester City).
Match rating 7/10.
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