By Jonathan Birchall
As Roberto Mancini turned the air blue in response to a question about Mario Balotelli on Friday, it was all just a little bit of history repeating.
As with the “f***ing hell” that greeted Sky’s James Cooper in the Italian’s press conference ahead of Manchester City’s trip to face Arsenal on Sunday, it was nine months ago this week, when the forward was sent off at the Emirates for a second yellow card after having fouled Bacary Sagna, that the club’s agitator-in-chief drew expletives all round.
Joe Hart left lip-readers wincing, volleying his water bottle and shaking his head, while Vincent Kompany mopped his forehead and muttered to himself, with a conciliatory attempt to rouse his team-mates. They, like the rest of us, had seen it all before. What left to do other than curse their problem child, out of form and seemingly out of his mind.
Balotelli’s career in England, along with his side’s chase for the title, was effectively over. With one win in six and eight points behind Manchester United with 15 to play for, City, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, had handed the Premier League to their neighbours with a 1-0 loss to Arsene Wenger’s men.
A baggy-eyed, exhausted Mancini admitted he was “finished” to the media at the Emirates after the match, with City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak having watched on stony-faced from the stands in north London. Balotelli, we were told, wouldn’t play another game that season and Arsene Wenger paid his respects to City’s challenge, all but congratulating United. It was not so much a press conference as it was a wake.
Then came the resurrection.
Having met for talks with Al Mubarak following the loss, Mancini and his chairman agreed that the City squad needed to be relieved of the relentless pressure borne from eight months dominating the Premier League with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side breathing down their neck. A new approach from the taskmaster was required. As such, the Italian purposely changed tact, insisting the race was over.
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“I fight always, every day, and also my team but now I think it is too late,” said Mancini after City’s 4-0 hammering of West Brom a week after their late collapse to Arsenal, reducing the defecit at the top to five points.
“I think they have fantastic spirit, United. We don’t have the same spirit and for this reason I think this is very difficult.”
Cod psychology or not, City bounced back from their so-called season-ending loss at the Emirates with a run of form so devastating that the memory of it will still linger on both sides of the Manchester divide ahead of a Sunday’s football that starts with United leading at the top by seven points.
Mancini’s side scored 10 goals in 4 days against West Brom and Norwich before a 2-0 win over Wolves closed the gap from eight points to three ahead of the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, which City would win. The gap between the city’s title fighters had closed even quicker than the month it taken to open by Ferguson’s holders.
Such resilience remains deep seated within clubs, and it is no coincidence that City, who have snatched points late on against Southampton, Fulham, West Brom Tottenham and Reading this season, are becoming experts in escapology. United know it better than anyone.
Like City themselves after Mikel Arteta’s 87th-minute winner against Mancini’s men in north London, the 2013 title run-in has been written off by those with short memories. Recent history suggests that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano have made clear both publically and privately that Mancini is the man they trust to repeat the recovery and maintain the title this term, starting this Sunday. The fans who stood and applauded an apologetic Hart, Kompany and Joleon Lescott off the pitch at the Emirates nine months ago agree. What better place to start than where it supposedly ended.
And what of Balotelli, whose red card at Arsenal was the supposed deathnail in his time at Manchester City? Mancini’s vow that he wouldn’t play again before the end of the season nearly came to pass, until in sheer desperation, the forward was introduced on the 75th minute at home to QPR on the final day.
Two touches brought him, and City, back to life. The second to Sergio Aguero at 2-2, on the 94th minute on that breathless day in May, saw the greatest revival imaginable complete. Even swearwords weren’t enough.
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