It was the kind of challenge which would have left Roberto Mancini issuing a pack of imaginary red cards, had his own side been on the receiving end, and if the absence of summary justice for Mario Balotelli was not bad enough, then the sight of him arrogantly dinking in the decisive penalty and winking at James Milner at the end of another extraordinary Premier League afternoon made it a whole lot worse.
It would have helped if Mancini had arrived to offer an explanation of how Balotelli had come to backheel Scott Parker in the head, as Harry Redknapp later put it, though we learned that his voice had failed him and were instead treated to his assistant David Platt's brand of "see no evil, hear no evil": "I've not seen the videotape. I didn't see anything and I didn't think there was any reaction from the players."
This is no more than we have come to expect from the game, though for City it was an occasion which required someone to find a voice. There has been an understandable indignation in the club's boardroom, this past week, about the way Mancini has been maligned for issuing imaginary cards – as if that really is a more lamentable offence than managers haranguing officials or seeking to manipulate them.
City also feel that Redknapp's claims a mere journalist could manage a club with City's wealth have been swallowed whole – another source of frustration. But the club so minded to do things the right way surrendered some moral high ground to Redknapp yesterday. If this result proves pivotal to the title then Tottenham will always be able to point to a Machiavellian streak in Manchester.
Who on earth knows when Mancini will begin pointing at Balotelli? The last time the striker arrived as a second-half substitute and behaved this poorly was at Anfield, in November, when he was dismissed and Kenny Dalglish said he should start looking in the mirror. Redknapp was incredulous last night when it was put to him that the 21-year-old's image as a loveable eccentric was disguising a malicious streak. "A lovable eccentric? What do you think..?" The question had already been answered on the pitch, in the way that Balotelli deviously thrust down a left boot – the kind of conduct you might see in a rugby scrum.
Perhaps it was Balotelli's reputation for flouncing out of interviews which explained the absence of any inquisition on the challenge in his brief post-match television chat. Someone needs to start ask him awkward questions and Redknapp indicated that he knows who. "He's nothing to do with me and it's up to their manager," he said.
There was the slightest hint of theatricality about the Tottenham manager's stoicism – Redknapp's own voice breaking slightly as he delivered it – which one suspected was partially self-serving. His side had certainly lost in desperate fashion – Jermain Defoe advanced fractionally too late to steer Gareth Bale's fast, low cross into an empty net, seconds before Balotelli's presence on the pitch proved so significant – yet they had still lost and Redknapp knows he will not get a better time to play City. The absence of Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany has clearly hurt the Premier League leaders deeply. Kompany would not have committed the same calamitous error as Stefan Savic, who sent a rudimentary punt from Younes Kaboul looping into Defoe's path for the goal which shifted the game back within Tottenham's ambit.
With those two missing, the balance of game was immeasurably delicate and controversy should certainly not disguise the product: another sublime episode in this season's incredible Premier League story. It was one in which City seized the ascendancy and surrendered it, as nine extraordinary second-half minutes offered up four goals, then almost lost altogether before Ledley King was correctly judged to have scissored Balotelli in the penalty area.
The cautious first-half joust, in which "no-one really wanted to go out and unhook themselves" as Platt put it, offered no hint of what was to follow – though it did suggest that David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero had the capacity to cut Tottenham open at will. Micah Richards, billetted in the Tottenham half for much of that period, was also a player they came to fear and Mancini's decision to grant him that liberty deconstructed the notion that City have somehow regressed to the diffidence of last season.
Both sides offered wonderful powers of creation at times and with Parker's ability to repel City not always equal to Aguero's talent, it was an opportunity to cast aside the pre-match cat-calling and survey two deeply gifted sides probing each other's depths. Spurs' strategy involved severely restricting City's space and when Silva was finally afforded enough of it to play in Nasri, 11 minutes after the interval, the Frenchman eased away from Kyle Walker to finish most emphatically. When Edin Dzeko extracted the slightest near-post connection on a Nasri corner, four minutes later, and Joleon Lescott pounced before Parker could blink the game's course seemed set.
But back came Spurs, equally imperious when Savic's error had helped shift the momentum. The Montenegrin's desperate second half was compounded by an uncomfortable post-match encounter with Mancini. "[Mancini's] voice was low but what he said was profound. He was not happy," Platt related. Then Aaron Lennon cut inside Richards and squared for Gareth Bale, who was given an inch by Gareth Barry and took a mile – his clipped, first-time 28-yard shot arcing beyond Joe Hart. Your money was on Tottenham, then.
Yet small details win big prizes and whether Emmanuel Adebayor, missing because of the terms of his loan deal from City, might have converted the chance Defoe was fractionally late in arriving for is something that Redknapp might grieve upon. City have questions to answer – concerning a player who is becoming a menace – but they will only really care that they have answered the bigger one, concerning their title credentials, and left the notion of Tottenham as champions looking rather dubious.
The mad nine minutes
Man City: HART 7/10; RICHARDS 7; SAVIC 5; LESCOTT 6; CLICHY 6; NASRI 7; MILNER 7; AGUERO 7; BARRY 6; SILVA 6; DZEKO 4
Spurs: FRIEDEL 6; ASSOUEKOTTO 6; KING 6; KABOUL 6; WALKER 6; BALE 8; MODRIC 6; PARKER 8; LENNON 6; VAN DER VAART 7; DEFOE 6
Scorers: Man City: Nasri 56, Lescott 60, Balotelli pen 90. Spurs: Defoe 61, Bale 65
Substitutes: Man City Balotelli 4 (Dzeko, 66). Tottenham Livermore 7 (Van der Vaart, 67), Pienaar (Lennon, 88).
Booked: Man City Clichy, Balotelli. Tottenham Parker. Man of the match Richards.
Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Man City 55% Tottenham 45%.
Attempts on target: Man City 7 Tottenham 7.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).