One sensed the evening Mario Balotelli was going to have as he struggled to put on his bib during the pre-match warm-up. Most people would have shrugged off the jape light-heartedly as a moment of light humour ahead of 90 intense minutes of football as Manchester City looked to turn around a two-goal Europa League deficit against Dynamo Kiev. Not Balotelli. The Italian endured the worst game of his City career so far, encapsulating all that is frustrating about the talented 20-year-old in 36 minutes of football.
First there was the miss from four yards. David Silva’s trickery set Micah Richards free down the inside-right channel. The right-back miscued his shot slightly. It turned into the perfect cross, drifting tantalisingly between defence and goalkeeper and through to the back post. Balotelli could not miss. Somehow he did, lifting his shot high over the bar and into the swathes of disbelieving City fans behind the goal.
With the score still tied at 0-0 came the nadir in his short career in England so far. As Goran Popov lifted a harmless clearance up field, Balotelli lifted his left leg high, raking his studs down the Kiev player’s chest. Drawing comparisons with Nigel de Jong’s infamous misdemeanour during the World Cup final, he could have no complaints. Any protest that he had merely tried to block the ball was tokenistic. Rarely will there be a more deserving red card this season. Roberto Mancini, usually so defensive of a player he has nurtured throughout his career, was understandably scathing: “When
The Citizens, to give the 10 remaining men their due, did not give up the fight. In fact, within moments of Balotelli’s dismissal, Aleksandar Kolarov had rifled them into the lead. The Bulgarian left-back came with the burden of being the ‘new Roberto Carlos’. On occasion, with his marauding runs forward and stunning left-footed strikes from dead balls, he has looked to live up to his reputation. His strike to put the Blues in contention was exactly what one has come to expect from him. A free-kick on the inside-right channel was tapped short to him. Taking a touch inside, he took ruthless advantage of the Kiev wall’s inability to close him down, hitting his shot across goal and into the bottom corner. City had 50 minutes, minus Balotelli, to find the goal which would take the tie into extra-time.
Although they dominated possession – City did not suffer from the inhibition which has been the cause of so much criticism levelled against them – without Balotelli they lacked thrust in the final third. Kiev for their part were understandably negative in their approach, even with a man advantage. They had a lead to protect. Why risk that for the sake of an away goal? As the game drew to its conclusion, City were simply unable to muster the expected flurry of attacks which could have brought an equalising goal.