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Mar 17, 2011

Blooper Mario not super Mario

When a footballer has the talent to win any game but the temperament to lose any tie, he is a wild card in more ways than one. Even by the standards of eccentrics, Mario Balotelli is unusual and unpredictable but his wildness brought Manchester City's European run to an end.

• Europa League review
• Europa League Gallery Photo Gallery
• Mancini laments Balotelli red

For the most part, City's resident rebel can seem impervious to the consequences of his actions. Even Balotelli should be aware now because, as City exited the Europa League, he was a prime reason why their 35-year wait for a trophy is likely to be extended.

Not for the first time, Roberto Mancini's chosen maverick was more blooper Mario than super Mario. An often cautious manager's great gamble on his protégé backfired in one of City's biggest games for years. Having sustained a swollen face in the first leg, Balotelli put on a sullen face in the second. Having agitated for his removal in Kiev, he earned himself a premature departure in Manchester. An allergy to the Ukrainian grass may have amused, but a red card in the rematch annoyed.

Balotelli's loss of control resulted in his studs making forceful contact with first the stomach and then the groin of Goran Popov. While the pernickety Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir made few friends at Eastlands on a night of frantic whistling, he was correct to dispatch the Italian to the dressing room.

"I didn't see the foul," Mancini said. "I'm disappointed because this was a difficult game and you can't have a stupid red card like this." It was Balotelli's second in City colours and as Mancini has substituted him to avoid others in the past, his dreadful disciplinary record could be worse.

In one sense, City were better off without Balotelli: having been drawing 0-0 with him, they won 1-0 in his absence. Indeed the speed with which Balotelli's exit was followed by Aleksandar Kolarov's drilled strike indicated that one directly resulted in the other.

These are the sorts of games where reputations are made or marred and Balotelli's, like a struggling economy, suffered a double dip. Profligacy was followed by stupidity. From sidefooting over the bar from three yards to unwittingly deflecting David Silva's goal-bound shot wide with his back, he had contrived to harm his side both with his presence and his absence.

City's was a positive response to his removal, Silva teeing up Kolarov to drive the ball under Oleksandr Shovkovskiy. Indeed, as late as the 93rd minute, when Edin Dzeko shot straight at the visiting captain, they could have salvaged the goal that would have ensured extra-time.

But the massed ranks of the Dynamo defence weren't breached again. "If it had been 11 against 11 we would have scored two or three goals," Mancini added. "The other 10 players played a fantastic game for 60 minutes."

Kolarov and Micah Richards, who created more chances in the first four minutes alone, overlapped with greater verve than at any stage this season; Silva offered touches of class and Carlos Tevez chased tirelessly. Yet urgency did not bring enough clear-cut chances. All-out attack does not come naturally to City and an attempt to overload with potential scorers resulted in the withdrawal of Silva, the likeliest creator.

In the process, next month's Manchester derby in the FA Cup at Wembley has assumed all-or-nothing proportions for City. Cautious as Mancini has been in his aims in the league, the Italian has recognised the importance of finally bringing a trophy to Eastlands. It is now two down, one to go.

On the continent, the damning conclusion is that City didn't come close. The Europa League is a competition where sides can travel a long way without making any real progress. That is what City have done, playing 12 games without reaching the quarter-finals. Arguably the greatest legacy of their European run has been the Poznan dance copied from their Polish opponents in the group stages.

While an inability to secure silverware outside Italy accounted for Mancini's departure from Inter Milan, City will be more forgiving. Mancini himself may not be: Balotelli will not be involved against Chelsea on Sunday. Too often, his manager's trust in him was misplaced. The lesson should be clear: talent alone is not enough.

MAN OF THE MATCH: David Silva - Another display of lovely touches and elegant vision. It was a surprise when Silva was removed, even if it was to make way for an out-and-out striker in Dzeko.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: The combination of their exertions with 10 men and the disappointment of their European exit should make Chelsea favourites to beat them on Sunday. Mancini named his strongest available side and the only one who wasn't overworked was Balotelli.

DYNAMO KIEV VERDICT: Their time-wasting irritated the City crowd, but there was much more to Dynamo than that. Several second-half breaks could have brought a goal, while Danilo Silva and Leandro Almeida were especially assured in defence. For all City's pressure, goalkeeper Shovkovskiy rarely needed to excel. Couple this with the 8-1 aggregate win over Besiktas in the previous round and Dynamo look one of the teams to beat.

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