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Jan 22, 2012

The good, the bad, and Balotelli

It is a rare individual who can be mean, moody and magnificent in the space of a few minutes. That, however, is the never knowingly normal Mario Balotelli, a footballer who is destructive and self-destructive in equal measure. Tottenham were bloodied and beaten, his right boot stroking an injury-time penalty past Brad Friedel barely 10 minutes after his studs had connected with Scott Parker's head. Balotelli made his mark, not with the stamp, but with a strike. Instead of departing in disgrace, he may have dispatched Tottenham from the title race.

Such are the emotional extremes performances like this produce. Not for the first time, he straddled the great divide that separates heroes - as, from Manchester City's perspective, he was - and villains. Rather than receiving the red card he merited, Balotelli presumably put the FA's disciplinary committee on red alert. Tottenham's manager, whose fondness for unconventional talents means he has a PhD in oddballs, dismissed the suggestion Balotelli is a loveable eccentric.

"Scott's got a lovely cut on his head," said Harry Redknapp. "I don't like people kicking other people in the head on the football pitch. It's not the first time he's done that and I'm sure it won't be the last. He's back-heeled him in the head. I don't understand it."

Balotelli deals in incomprehension, however. The question he posed three months ago - "Why Always Me?" - remains as pertinent, arguably as unanswerable, as it was then. Balotelli unveiled his motto during his derby demolition job in the 6-1 win over Manchester United, this was a second potentially title-deciding contribution; it was also a case of the good, the bad and the ugly, though not in that order.

It was Balotelli's raw power than induced a rare error from Ledley King, his remarkable nonchalance that enabled him to convert the decisive penalty as though absolutely nothing were riding on it. "He's quite happy to be at the centre of attention in the last minute," said City's first-team coach David Platt, who claimed not to have seen the striker's altercation with Parker. "I don't think he lets the occasion get to him." The paradox in Balotelli, however, is that he can display a Zen-like level of calm moments before, or after, an explosive loss of control. He is an unpredictable package of matchwinner and millstone; the maverick with malice.

His eventful cameo - Balotelli contrived to wreak his own brand of havoc in half an hour on the pitch - left Tottenham understandably upset. Eight points adrift of City, they are very much third favourites in the title race, with Redknapp accepting: "It's difficult now." Moreover, there was a familiarity to their demise. They are entitled to attribute their only defeats since August to officials, whether Chris Foy at Stoke or Howard Webb in Manchester.

An alternative scapegoat, should one be required, is Jermain Defoe. That statement has a harshness, given his well-taken goal, but despite Webb's failure to dismiss Balotelli, Tottenham should have savoured the late drama. Gareth Bale's barnstorming run was followed by a low cross. Defoe flung himself at it, sending his shot agonisingly close to the far post. "I thought we were dead and buried," Platt conceded. The Spurs bench were on their feet in celebration, a feeling that soon turned to desperation when, two minutes later, King upended Balotelli in the box.

It was as though regulation time preceded a sudden death shootout, with Balotelli contriving to overshadow everything, and everyone, else. First and third in the table had traded four goals in 10 exhilarating minutes.

It began with the three-minute salvo that constituted Samir Nasri's final favour to his old employers. Indeed, the opening goal had its roots at the Emirates, rather than the Etihad, Stadium. It was the product of the sort of angled run that Arsenal's nominal left wingers specialise in making. Like Robert Pires before him, Nasri veered from the touchline towards the penalty spot, blindsiding Kyle Walker to reach David Silva's pass and blasting his shot past Brad Friedel. After supplying three assists on his City debut at White Hart Lane, this was his fifth goal in five games against Spurs.

The Frenchman's corner was glanced on by Edin Dzeko to Joleon Lescott, who connected so gently that the scorer ended up in the net before the ball. Back came Tottenham. Defoe capitalised on Savic's awful header to beat Joe Hart before Luka Modric squared the ball to Bale. Taking aim, his body shape resembling Jonny Wilkinson's when the fly-half aimed over the posts, he whipped a shot into the top corner. It was a glorious goal from the £150 million man, as Tottenham have apparently valued him.

Chairman Daniel Levy drives a mean bargain, but that is virtually double the current world transfer record. Whether Bale actually is worth three of Fernando Torres, four Sergio Agueros or an infinite number of Demba Bas is a moot point but, had Defoe been able to stretch a few inches further, he would provided Tottenham with a notable victory. Instead, with a certain inevitability, even he was overshadowed by the human wrecking ball that is Balotelli.

MAN OF THE MATCH: James Milner - In another diligent display, perhaps the standout moment was a brilliant sliding challenge on Bale when the Welshman was breaking clear. It highlighted many of Milner's qualities - his work ethic, his sense of responsibility and the strength that enables him to power across the pitch.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It is a remarkable result and one with potentially huge consequences but, over the 90 minutes, a draw would have been a fairer outcome. Roberto Mancini's men had difficulties at either end of the pitch with the disappointing Dzeko, for the second successive game, managing to deny Aguero a goal - these strike partners can appear on a very different wavelength - and Savic looking a liability. Vincent Kompany's return cannot come soon enough.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Tactically, theirs was a display of limited intent with Redknapp using Rafael van der Vaart in a deeper, more disciplined role than usual - indeed the Dutchman was practically a third central midfielder - and then replacing him with Jake Livermore at 2-2. However, they then looked the likelier winners and, after their comeback, it was looking an excellent result until the injury-time mayhem. Parker and Bale were excellent again while King experienced a novel feeling: this was the first time since August 2010 he has lost a league game.

SWEET FA: If the game's governing body do act, the immediate beneficiaries could be Liverpool. Redknapp was unconcerned if Balotelli is banned now, as well he might be, but the striker could be suspended for Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final and, as he has already been dismissed this season, a further three games. So, too, might Lescott, though Redknapp had not seen his alleged elbow on Younes Kaboul.

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