What kind of proposition will Mario Balotelli be when he's really warmed up for it?
On a night so blisteringly cold that one Austrian occupant of the press box was wearing a pair of plug-in electric blanket trousers, Balotelli ambled out so late for the second half that he missed the start of play. But behind the languid manner and the inscrutable face is a 20-year-old who has started four games and scored five goals for Roberto Mancini. You've seen nothing yet, his manager said late last night, and considering this was Balotelli's first home start for Manchester City, you have to believe that he is right.
It was not a winter wonderland in every way for City, who spurned a blizzard of chances before securing a place in the knockout stage against a side whose football was as desperate as their product placement strategy: placing three cans of Red Bull on the edge of their technical zone. But the £24m man did enough. "He can play better than this," Mancini said of Balotelli. "We might have two or three more [league] points if he had played more." The po-face after his two goals didn't surprise Mancini. "Always he is like this, because for him it is normal to score. He scores every day, probably."
Salzburg knew what they were up against. The game hadn't reached its second minute when Balotelli was yanked to earth by Christoph Leitgeb and the causes of the consternation were self-evident. There is the striker's physical power – a ferocious shot with minimal backlift inside 10 minutes – and extraordinary pace in an individual of such bulk, to reach and dispatch it. Ibrahim Sekagya had a yard start on him but it was still no contest.
There is a brain, too. That much was clear in the way Balotelli drifted back into play under the radar, from an offside position, to latch onto a Patrick Vieira ball that split the defence. Gerhard Tremel saved well but was powerless when the first goal came, minutes later – Balotelli extended a left leg around Leitgeb but still delivered with a ferocity that defied physics. The blatant dive the Italian subsequently took after running onto Adam Johnson's clipped pass was not welcome, though that won't disturb Mancini.
Shaun Wright-Phillips' struggle to convert his occasional strong runs into scoring chances was more of a concern. Several times his decision-making was poor. But Johnson delivered a far more convincing case in support of his demand for more playing time. Johnson wasn't always engaged with proceedings either, slipping off the field in the second half to make use of the facilities. "In Italy we have a saying: 'better in the bathroom than on the pitch'," Mancini said.
The effect certainly seemed wondrous. First, Johnson's decisive tackle enabled him to feed Vieira who squared for Balotelli's tap-in. Then, he scored one of the finest goals you will see this season, jinking in from the left, beating three men as he transferred the ball from left foot to right before curling in. Mancini has been damning of Johnson's attitude recently. "I hope he can understand that I said those things because I believe in him," the manager reflected last night. "Maybe in three or four years when I have left Manchester City he will say: 'Roberto said some good things.'"
Juventus' draw in Poznan means they are out, and City – two points clear of the Poles – will qualify as Group A champions, avoiding the Champions League drop-outs, if they win in Turin in two weeks' time. For now, Europa and Premier Leagues will be pondering what lies in wait from this end of Manchester and its latest enigmatic Italian.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Given; Boateng, K Touré (Richards, 81), Lescott, Zabaleta; Milner, Vieira; Wright-Phillips, Johnson, Jo; Balotelli (Adebayor, 71). Substitutes not used Hart, Kolarov, Barry, Silva, De Jong.
Red Ball Salzburg (4-1-4-1): Tremmel; Schiemer, Sekagya, Afolabi, Hinteregger (Svento, h-t); Da Silva (Augustinussen, 67); Hierlander, Leitgeb, Cziommer (Alan, 57), Jantscher; Boghossian. Substitutes not used Walke, Zarate, Mahop, Offenbacher.
Referee L Kovarik (Czech Republic).
Results so far Juventus 3 Lech Poznan 3; Salzburg 0 Manchester City 2; Lech Poznan 2 Salzburg 0; Manchester City 1 Juventus 1; Manchester City 3 Lech Poznan 1; Salzburg 1 Juventus 1; Lech Poznan 3 Manchester City 1; Juventus 0 Salzburg 0; Manchester City 3 Salzburg 0; Lech Poznan 1 Juventus 1.
Remaining fixtures 16 Dec Juventus v Manchester City; Red Bull Salzburg v Lech Poznan.
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