Bye, bye Mario?
Peter Fraser asks whether Mario Balotelli has played himself towards a January move after the striker's dismal derby display in Manchester City's defeat by Manchester United
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF
Last Updated: 09/12/12 6:59pm
Amid the drama of Sunday's Manchester derby, Mario Balotelli delivered a performance which could lead to the end of the striker's Manchester City career.
There was blood and drama in the game, which United eventually won 3-2 courtesy of Robin van Persie's deflected injury-time free-kick, as a celebrating Rio Ferdinand suffered a facial injury after he was struck in the face by coin seemingly thrown from City fans.
But prior to the late action, Balotelli had produced the sort of disinterested, ineffective game which often makes people question his aptitude, and debate City boss Roberto Mancini's judgement.
The Italian, having surprisingly started the game, was substituted in just the 52nd minute, when City still trailed to Wayne Rooney's two goals and before his club's ultimately meaningless fight back through Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta.
The look and gesture of an under-pressure Mancini when he decided to substitute Balotelli told the full story and, with AC Milan waiting in the wings, it remains to be seen if the £24million summer 2010 signing from Inter Milan is still in England after January.
Selection and tactics
Mancini handed Balotelli a prized City starting place in a striking partnership with Sergio Aguero. But it badly backfired. The decision to stick with Balotelli could be what Mancini lives or dies by if speculation that he is facing the sack at the end of the season is correct. Selecting Balotelli meant former United striker Carlos Tevez could only make the bench against his old club. David Silva recovered from a hamstring injury and both Gael Clichy and Matija Nastasic were selected in defence.
Sir Alex Ferguson had both Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley available to help supply some ammunition for United striker Van Persie in his first Manchester derby. Rooney was playing in a slightly more advanced position than in past weeks and he capitalised with his two goals.
Any man would have struggled to keep a lid on a game which hit the ground running, with neither set of players pulling out of any challenges in a feisty opening five minutes. Referee Martin Atkinson had his hands full but resisted reaching for his cards until the second half before going on to book a total of seven players. The decision to disallow an Ashley Young effort for a tight offside call after Van Persie had hit a post could have caused mass controversy had United not eventually won. From the free-kick, City immediately attacked and scored their first goal through Toure.
City's first change was forced upon them when Vincent Kompany had to be replaced by Kolo Toure due to a groin injury in just the 21st minute. The loss of their captain clearly upset City and they conceded Rooney's second goal just eight minutes later. The introduction of Tevez for the woeful Balotelli shortly after half-time helped inspire City's ultimately meaningless fightback. Edin Dzeko was sent on two minutes before Zabaleta's equaliser but the super-sub for once found himself on the losing team.
United's first change was also due to an injury at centre-back. Jonny Evans sustained a problem in the first half and had to be replaced by Chris Smalling just three minutes after half-time following his failure to recover. Phil Jones came on for only his third Premier League appearance of the season in the 84th minute when replacing Antonio Valencia. Danny Welbeck was sent on for the excellent Cleverley when United were chasing a winner having surrendered their two-goal lead.
Criticism will focus on Balotelli. He did not look interested and Mancini lost patience with his compatriot shortly after a half-hearted attempt at a backheel gave possession to United. Mancini has shown Balotelli a lot of faith but now a January sale of the striker is looking increasingly likely. Balotelli stormed down the tunnel after being substituted before later returning to support his team-mates. The problem for Balotelli, and City, is the brilliant performances, such as two goals in last season's unforgettable 6-1 derby win at United, have become increasingly rare. He now looks repeatedly like the petulant, unpredictable player who was sent off at Liverpool and Arsenal in 2011/12. Samir Nasri also failed to impress when hiding behind City's wall and meekly dangling a leg which deflected Van Persie's match-winning free-kick past Joe Hart.
Rooney was the man of the match. Ferguson had recently said the striker needs three games to get back to his best after injury and, having recovered from Tonsillitis, that appears to have been exactly the case. Rooney was clinical at the Etihad. Van Persie can also not be ignored after his free-kick, albeit with the aid of the deflection, proved a perfect reward for a training ground routine.
City will now have to overcome a large six-point deficit to United if they want to regain their Premier League title. There is also the small matter of the negative publicity of a Football Association investigation into the events at the end of the match when Ferdinand was struck by a thrown coin. This is combined with the psychological impacts of such a late, dramatic and significant defeat by their arch rivals. Mancini will secretly hope his squad can benefit from their lack of European football in the second half of the season. But he is unlikely to convince club owner Sheikh Mansour to part with much money in January after a underachieving first half of the season. Mancini may have to sell in order to buy and Balotelli could be the man to leave. A trip to Newcastle United next Saturday is next on the fixture list.
Having capitulated to lose the title last season, United were always going to come back stronger in the new campaign. It is in Ferguson's DNA. The Scot's squad look ruthless and deadly in attack and they are welcoming key men back from injury. But their defensive problems remain. Zabaleta's equaliser came from another set-piece and United will know there is a desperate need to strengthen at the back. Captain Nemanja Vidic's return cannot come quickly enough. United next host relegation-threatened Sunderland at Old Trafford.