By George Ankers
Clawing back two late goals against Sunderland may feel like a success in the heat of the moment, but the truth is that Manchester City look like a team watching themselves implode.
Yes, their opponents on Saturday have been a vastly-improved side since Martin O’Neill’s arrival, and yes, rivals Manchester United have displayed plenty of mettle of late, but this is a City side who were overwhelming favourites for the Premier league title at the turn of the year and are now not even masters of their own destiny.
The man at the eye of the latest in a series of storms is Mario Balotelli. Perhaps football’s most explosive enigma, the Italian scored twice at the Etihad but still drew criticism from manager Roberto Mancini after the game.
|AS IT STANDS...
1. Man United
2. Man City
After being hauled off following a poor display in his side's comeback win over Chelsea, Balotelli’s next move was to jet over to Italy, gatecrash a bewildered Andrea Stramaccioni’s press conference introducing himself as Inter coach. It prompted Mancini to admit that “I don’t think anyone can trust Mario”.
His exasperation is understandable – the most entertaining man that the sport has to offer he may be, but Balotelli's antics are often a hindrance – but for it to be so public seems a problem, and indicative of the tensions at Eastlands.
With points being dropped all over the place and United exerting their usual iron will, what the City squad desperately needs is some unity and positivity of their own to counter, and Mancini is providing none of it. Rowing with one forward in training, calling Sergio Aguero out on his “stupid” injury before Saturday’s game – and then Tevez …
The former United striker is undeniably an asset to City – witness his key assist against Chelsea – but his return has not been handled well. Mancini drew a lot of praise in the aftermath of the Argentine’s refusal to warm-up against Bayern Munich last September and subsequent disappearance, and rightly so – we saw a man in control of his dressing room, laying down the law when things were going well.
But when his transfer away never materialised and results were going downhill, that principle was conveniently relaxed to have the striker fast-tracked back into the fold. If you were Edin Dzeko, a man admittedly struggling for form but having at least turned up for training every day of the season, and the rebel who’d spent six months golfing in Argentina was welcomed back with open arms ahead of you, would that boost your motivation?
Outwardly, of course, the squad all say that they “didn’t really know” the situation with Tevez and “we’re delighted to have him back”, but surely at least some were privately pointing to their salaries and asking what they had to do to be allowed to earn them.
|"Mancini's exasperation is understandable - the most entertaining man that the sport has to offer he may be, but Balotelli's antics are often a hindrance"
Vincent Kompany’s three weeks out, and the disastrous results that have come in that time, look crucial here. The central defender, perhaps the key figure above all others on the pitch for City this season, has clearly been missed in terms of leadership as well as ability.
Simply put, the pressure seems to be getting to City. They haven’t come this close to the title before and it shows.
With Mancini opting out of press conferences for fear of mouthing off and landing himself in trouble, Patrick Vieira entering into a war of words with Sir Alex Ferguson and then the oddly reactionary response to the Frenchman’s comments on United’s relationship with referees, you can’t help but sense a meltdown.
In October, City set the bar so high with their 6-1 demolition of the Red Devils that to see their dominance slipping away must be distressing, but Mancini has quite simply the strongest squad in the Premier League at his disposal, and should have handled them better.
Five (probable) points may not be the biggest gap in the world, but look at how far Manchester City have fallen from their early season standards and you are forced to conclude that a renewed upward trajectory will not be forthcoming.
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