City title hopes go up in smoke as Balotelli explodes
Arsenal 1 Manchester City 0
If Mario Balotelli achieved one thing for his manager Roberto Mancini yesterday then at least he could say he drew some of the fire upon himself on a dreadful afternoon for the club. Unfortunately for Mancini, even with the distracting chaos that Balotelli wrought at the Emirates the bottom line from a crucial day in the Premier League season is still that this defeat was the day that Manchester City tossed the title away.
It will take a miracle for City to make up eight points on the leaders Manchester United over the remaining six games. Not everything can be blamed upon the erratic, impulsive Balotelli - a "clown" at the circus, in the words of Gary Neville. Even if the Italian were to gatecrash his next press conference with a squirty flower and a red nose, he alone is not the reason that City appear to have blown their first title since 1968.
Balotelli's challenge on Alex Song on 26 minutes, that was worthy of a red card, and the striker's second yellow card of the day for a tackle on Bacary Sagna in injury-time at the end of the game, were low points for City. But they were not the only ones. Without David Silva, a shadow of his former self recently, and Yaya Toure off injured early there was precious little fight left in Mancini's team.
At the end of the game, David Platt, Mancini's assistant, appeared to be motioning a group of players including Carlos Tevez, a late substitute, Aleksandar Kolarov and David Pizarro over to acknowledge the away fans in the far corner of the ground. That they walked straight past him and down the tunnel just about summed up City's rotten day.
City's run in the league is now one win in five. Mancini has not yet conceded the title, and who can blame him, but for the first time yesterday, Arsene Wenger was asked if he could catch City in second place. The difference is ten points and ordinarily that would be considered impossible but City's form has gone so dramatically that it is difficult to say when they might recover.
The blame and recrimination is never far away at any club where large amounts of money have been thrown at winning trophies. The obvious conclusion is that City have choked but it did not look like a loss of nerve yesterday; it looked like their form had gone altogether. Balotelli's behaviour was the icing on the cake but the problems go deeper.
For Arsenal, rarely has there been so much jubilation at handing a league title to United as there was at the final whistle. Their victory puts them two points ahead of Spurs back in fourth place and in pole position for the Champions League places. They have have won eight out of their last nine Premier League games and, but for a rally by City after half-time, they controlled the game.
Wenger said on Friday that it was in the last 15 minutes of big matches – the "money-time", as he called it – that titles were lost and won. Arsenal long ceased to be relevant in this particular title race but when the pressure was on yesterday they looked a much more mature team than the one that started the season. There were fine performances in midfield from Arteta and Tomas Rosicky and, for once, the winner did not come from Van Persie.
As for City, they were without the injured David Silva from the beginning, although his form has been fading for some time. Yaya Toure picked up a silly booking in the second minute by pulling back Rosicky and clashed knees with Song on 16 minutes. He struggled on for a while but he had to come off.
By then, Arsenal had gone close. Laurent Koscielny headed on a corner that Van Persie met at the back post. It would have gone in had Thomas Vermaelen blocked the ball on the line for City.
It was after then Balotelli began the train of events that would ensure the man who swam into the centre of the Boat Race on Saturday did not the end the Easter weekend as the biggest liability in British sport. On 26 minutes Balotelli took a heavy touch – often the preface for a moment of madness from temperamental players – and followed it by lunging in on Song.
The replays showed it to be a red card offence. Balotelli's studs came down hard on Song's leg. The incident could yet be the subject of retrospective action by the Football Association. Given that Balotelli's subsequent red card was his second of the season – excluding the retrospective ban for his stamp on Scott Parker – he will get a three game ban for that alone. There could be more on top.
With Balotelli at boiling point, there was a handball at the end of the half during a tussle with Sagna which other referees might not have been so charitable about. As for meaningful contributions to the game, Balotelli's only chance was a mis-hit from a cross from the right. He kicked the goal-post in frustration.
For all Balotelli's destructiveness, City managed at least to slow what looked a very promising start by the home side. The obvious question was why, with so much at stake for City, Balotelli stayed on for the second half. He had become such a villain with the Arsenal fans some of them were forgetting to boo Samir Nasri. Balotelli's contribution was marginal.
For a while after the break City took control of the game from Arsenal but with 20 minutes to go, the home side wrestled it back and laid siege for that last crucial part of the game.
Van Persie had a goal disallowed for offside – rightly, by World Cup linesman Darren Cann – when he was played in on goal by Song. Then Theo Walcott, Vermaelen and Yossi Benayoun all conspired to miss or have their shot blocked or saved from close range.
It was Pizarro who was easily dispossessed by Arteta before he struck a low shot just inside Hart's left post. On the touchline, Mancini raged at the Chilean midfielder. Behind him, his assistants Platt and Brian Kidd had their heads in their hands. When Balotelli was sent off minutes later, Mancini elected to stay in his seat.
Arsenal: Koscielny, Santos.
City: Y Touré, Milner, Zabaleta, Balotelli.
Sent off: Balotelli 87 min.
Man of the match: Song.
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