A worrying predictability characterised Manchester City’s 1-0 Europa League round-of-16 first-leg defeat to Sporting. Staid and formulaic, this was a City side entirely at odds with the swashbuckling outfit that has plundered 69 goals on their way to the Premier League summit. A lack of fantasy, of imagination and impetuosity, inhibited Roberto Mancini’s men who rarely looked like breaking down the durable Portuguese outfit.
Seventy minutes of mind-numbing tedium had passed before the Italian’s intervention. Within moments, City were transformed. It was as if the blue touchpaper had been lit. Where there was once grim acceptance of defeat, Balotelli brought a devil-may-care spark. Finding space in the Sporting penalty area with a jet-heeled burst of pace, his trailing-leg cross was pure luxury; a moment to take the breath away. More’s the pity that David Silva was unable to do the assist the poetic justice it deserved.
Nevertheless, the former Inter man’s charismatic presence propelled City forward with a hitherto undiscovered purpose. The impetuousness which defines the man was evident, yet it brought with it a thrill. Projected through Balotelli, City belatedly found their personality. The final stages saw the champions elect attack with greater menace. From the left, Silva swung over a cross. Implausibly, Balotelli arched his neck to meet it, leaving the goalkeeper powerless as the header looped beyond him, crashing onto the bar. City would have scarcely deserved an equaliser. For Balotelli, it would have been a just reward.
Central to Balotelli’s performance, indeed vital to Balotelli in his pomp, was that insouciant swagger, that sense of youthful freedom which refutes constraint and, often, logic. His very unwillingness to be systematised, his belligerence in the face of tactical restraint, was precisely what made him so exciting. Intrinsic to that is his immaturity. He, unlike some of his more experienced teammates, acted before doubt could creep into his mind. Sure, this may sometimes be detrimental – as his red cards, numerous spats and fall-outs attest. More often than not it translates on the pitch into something intoxicating. Even a match as poor as this turgid Europa League fare could not fail to be illuminated by Balotelli’s virtuosity.
In a soon to be aired interview for Football Focus, Noel Gallagher captured the forward’s appeal saying, “Apparently Mancini said in his press conference that you need to mature, but we don’t think you need to mature.” The implication is obvious: it is precisely his immaturity, his youth, which makes him such a compelling watch, and fearsome prospect for opposition defenders.
Whilst Balotelli acknowledged his manager’s concerns, one hopes that he turns a deaf ear to them. This is a man whose genius is fuelled by impulse and instinct. His immaturity is what enables him to transform games. An older, wiser Mario Balotelli may not quite be what Manchester City require.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Swansea v Man City