Balotelli's tunnel vision


Manchester City 3 Sunderland 0:MARIO BALOTELLI is unlikely to face action from Manchester City after he walked straight down the tunnel when substituted against Sunderland on Saturday according to the club.

The Italian was taken off for Sergio Agüero in the 56th minute after an indifferent display during City’s 3-0 win against Sunderland. Balotelli did not make any eye contact with his manager, Roberto Mancini, as he headed for the dressing room.

David Platt, the assistant manager, added: “I don’t know why he did that. He doesnt normally.” Balotelli flew home to join up with his national squad in Italy immediately after the match, but is not expected to be disciplined.

After the win, Mancini said: “I am happy with Mario, he played a good game.”

Ahead of kick-off Mancini was super-confident. “I know what the problem is with our performance and I will solve it very quickly. We will improve,” he said. Ninety minutes later, the Italian was proved right. Manchester City had a first clean sheet of the campaign, as Sunderland were splayed, and Pablo Zabaleta suggested the sticky start to their title defence may be over.

Thumping free-kicks from Aleksandar Kolarov and James Milner plus a sweet Sergio Aguero goal ended Sunderland’s unbeaten league record, as Mancini finally discovered the magic formula.

On this showing it consists of replacing three of the regular back-four, selecting James Milner and Gareth Barry as the holding midfielders, playing Yaya Toure as the focal point of an attacking trident, and restoring Carlos Tevez to the XI. Before this outing Mancini’s side had allowed 16 goals in all competitions.

A prime factor in this sequence ending was a 24-year-old English defender who had not begun a match since April 11th.

The news is that Micah Richards was a force on his return from injury, the contribution in defence and attack illustrating that if consistency is added, Mancini will find leaving him out difficult.

Dropped as a starter towards the end of last season, Richards lined up alongside Joleon Lescott in central defence with the excellent Kolarov at left-back, and Pablo Zabaleta on the right. The Argentinian, the only first-choice of this quartet, pointed to the Richards factor in Sunderland’s failure to score.

“Micah came back to the team, he was very solid at the back,” he said, before alluding to the spoiling work of Milner and Barry. “It’s not just about four defenders, the team did a fantastic game so I’m happy for the result. The first clean sheet for us of the season so that’s good for the team, for the defenders to get confidence.”

Of Richards, Zabaleta added: “He can play centre-back and right-back. He’s a very good player, so for the team its good when you’ve got players who can play in different positions – Micah did a fantastic game today.”

There may now be a three-way fight for the right-back berth. “We are Maicon, me, and Micah. I think no one player has (the right), we need to work for the place,” he said.

All elite sides have difficult periods in a season. Zabaleta believes City’s could be finished. “We know in the Premier League we have more respect from the other teams who want to beat Manchester City because we won the title last season,” he said.

“So now every team wants to beat us but we are still unbeaten and starting to play well now. We are in the top four and there is a long way to go yet.”

The two-week international break may be ill-timed for a resurgent City. “It is hard when you come back, especially for any players who comes from South America because there is so much travelling involved and we come back only two days before the next Premier League game,” Zabaleta said. “Our next is West Brom away – another difficult game.”

While Aguero joins Zabaleta in Argentina’s squad for their World Cup qualifiers with Uruguay and Chile, Tevez is out of favour. Is this upsetting him? “No, he has been in the national team for a long time,” Zabaleta added. “He has played under lots of different managers and last season was a bit different for Carlos because he didn’t play for four or five months for City.”

Barry was not selected by Roy Hodgson for England’s encounters with Poland and San Marino either.

“I have not spoken to the manager,” Barry said. “But I understand why I am not in it. My season hasn’t really got going, and I am still getting over the groin injury. I am hopeful that if I can get a run in the team, and get some games together, I will be in the next squad. I am obviously disappointed because I want to play for my country. I am not ready to retire yet, and will just keep working hard. I am not going to say too much.”

Vincent Kompany, who was unable to face Sunderland due to a calf injury, should be fit to face West Bromwich Albion. The club were unable to confirm whether he will report to Belgium’s national side for their World Cup qualifiers.

Guardian Service

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