March 2012 - Reports
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Manchester City 3 Sunderland 3  Prem League, You're Having a Laugh
Saturday 31st March 2012 : GYKO at the Etihad

After the mystery of Sergio Agüero's injured foot, viewers of the Manchester City Vaudeville tuned in to see if they were witnessing a full-scale, late-season implosion.

On this evidence, the jury is out. Mario Balotelli's and Aleksandar Kolarov's late, late goals rescued a point but the result still allows Manchester United to go five ahead if they defeat Blackburn Rovers on Monday. A further win over Queens Park Rangers next Sunday and City will arrive at Arsenal later that afternoon eight points behind the champions with only seven of their games remaining.

In a week that City scholars may mark down as one when it all went wrong for the Blues, Agüero's crocked tootsie was joined by Balotelli's gate-crashing of an Internazionale press conference before Sunderland rolled up to take a dozing City apart and end a run of 20 straight home league wins.

Martin O'Neill continues to produce sides that should never be written off and the Irishman closed his afternoon with mixed emotions after a fluid display faded as final whistle approached. "Yes. I thought we played brilliantly today and am obviously disappointed to have dropped some points," the Sunderland manager said. Of City's comeback, it was down to "two things really. We are the first team to take some points off them [here, for more than a year].

"And also they are second in the league so they are actually a very good team and they are never out of the match because they have so many match-winners. I think we got a little bit tired, obviously – exertions of Tuesday night, also the disappointment of Tuesday night [losing to Everton in the FA Cup], although we seemed to put that to the side and performed excellently today."

Roberto Mancini had ended the first half like a hyperactive Marcel Marceau. miming his fury at the manner of Sunderland's second goal that allowed them to walk off at 2-1. From a free-kick City were caught dozing, the excellent Stéphane Sessègnon floated in a cross and Nicholas Bendtner buried the header.

The visitors' opener was similarly created by Sessègnon, who would also be involved in their third. From the left, the forward ghosted infield past James Milner and with an effective lay-off found Sebastian Larsson whose side-foot pass beat Joe Hart.

This sparked Mancini's side into action and, in mitigation, they fought back admirably – as they would, too, at the contest's end. The arguments will flare regarding the Edin Dzeko penalty he won when coming together with Craig Gardner and it was also unclear why, after Phil Dowd awarded the spot-kick, he did not offer Gardner the second yellow card that would have reduced Sunderland to 10 men. Whatever, Balotelli stepped up to slot home.

"I genuinely thought that the referee was going to book their player for diving," said O'Neill of the penalty award. "That was my first thought but I should have known better."

Both when the kick was awarded and at a clash of heads between Jack Colback and Micah Richards – who was replaced at half-time with a leg injury, though he should be fine – Sunderland's players fumed at Dzeko. Could O'Neill understand their reaction? "Absolutely." Asked if anything can be done about "simulation", he added: "The referees have a really difficult job, but I spoke to him in the tunnel at the end – I think he must have seen it since – and he just said he thought it was a penalty. I didn't think it was. I think the replays will show that and really disappointing because it was a major blow to us a couple of minutes before half-time.

"I know we scored just after that, but the referee wasn't to know that and he's given it. But anyway it shouldn't detract from our performance – our performance was terrific."

For City, apparent insurmountable disaster struck when Sunderland collected their third: Sessègnon again wandered through City's slumbering midfield before he fed Bendtner's clever cross-field run that splayed the back-pedalling defence. The Dane's delivery was finished by Larsson for his second, and O'Neill stated of the on-loan Arsenal forward: "I thought Bendtner played as a real centre-forward – holding it up, bringing people in, and maybe on a performance like that his much self-vaunted opinion is maybe justified today."

If this was a reference to the 24-year-old's high self-regard, the introduction of the proven high-class Carlos Tevez – for David Silva, on 58 minutes – did little to help City. And when moments later Balotelli and Kolarov had a very public and embarrassing dispute about who should take a free-kick this appeared to symbolise City's afternoon.

Mancini downplayed this, as any manager ought and, at least, it was both the Italian and the defender who scored to claim what may yet be a precious point.

For Sir Alex Ferguson and his United band, though, they arrive at Ewood Park on Monday evening with the early April spring in their step to which they are so accustomed just as the Premier League trophy is being prepared ahead of its presentation in May. They now have a hand on it.

Teams:

Man City Hart, Richards (Johnson 46), Toure, Kompany, Kolarov, Milner (Pizarro 81), De Jong, Toure Yaya, Silva (Tevez 58), Balotelli, Dzeko.

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Clichy, Barry, Zabaleta.

Booked: De Jong.

Goals: Balotelli 43 pen, 85, Kolarov 86.

Sunderland Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon (Kyrgiakos 81), Colback, Larsson, Gardner, Cattermole (Vaughan 90), McClean, Sessegnon, Bendtner.

Subs Not Used: Westwood, Campbell, Richardson, Ji, Meyler.

Booked: Gardner.

Goals: Larsson 31, Bendtner 45, Larsson 55.

Att: 47,007

Ref: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).


 

Stoke City 1 Manchester City 1   Crouch does City Again
Sunday 25th March 2012 : Alan Birch for GYKO at the Britannia Stadium

Manchester City dropped two precious points to one of the goals of the season from Peter Crouch, leaving United in a position to go three clear at the top of the Premier League if they beat Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday night.

Crouch scored his 12th goal of the season with a looping volley from 30 yards, and it took a strike from even further out from Yaya Touré, deflected by Ryan Shawcross, to spare the title aspirants an even more damaging result.

Stoke's lanky totem was withdrawn in the last minute to adoring cries of "Crouchy for England", which may not be such a bad call if the man who was jettisoned after 22 goals in 42 international appearances can still finish like this. He said: "I'm confident in my volleying technique, I work on it in training every day. Mind you, they don't always work out like that."

A grateful manager, Tony Pulis, confirmed that the goal was not a one-off, saying: "He does that in training. He's a gifted young man, and today I thought he was the best player on the pitch."

Of his prospects of going to Euro 2012 Crouch added: "Of course I want to go. My aim is to do well for Stoke and play my way back into the England squad."

City were so upset by the result, and the manner of it, that their manager, Roberto Mancini, refused to attend the usual post-match press conference, sending David Platt in his place. Platt indicated that the title contenders were not happy with their opponents' typically muscular approach, which left David Silva nursing a bandaged head after Dean Whitehead's forearm made painful contact with an ear.

That match was spikily competitive throughout, as Stoke's tend to be, but City's complaints had the unmistakable whiff of sour grapes. Whitehead's challenge was only marginally worse than the one on Glenn Whelan for which Gareth Barry was booked in the first half.

City were without their principal goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, who had sustained a foot injury, but opted not to start with Carlos Tevez. Instead, the line was led by Edin Dzeko, supported from behind by Mario Balotelli, both of whom had an off day when it came to finishing.

Stoke gave a rare start to Cameron Jerome, who has been bellyaching of late about his lack of opportunity. As a striker with a modest three goals to show from 15 Premier League appearances, his case was less than overwhelming, and he was withdrawn in the second half without his efforts warranting continued inclusion.

Stoke and their high-decibel following object long and loud to critical references to their team's rudimentary style, but it is hard not to compare it unfavourably with the likes of Swansea and Manchester City when the denizens of the Britannia bellow "Boring, Boring" at every attempt by the opposition to play a cohesive, passing game.

In the land of the route one giants, City stuck to their aesthetic principles and kept the ball on the deck, but to no avail, with ultra-competitive Stoke showing no sign of the fatigue Pulis says has undermined their efforts in recent weeks.

Stoke had the best chance of a combative first half after 40 minutes, when Matthew Etherington's corner from the right evaded everyone in the goalmouth, including Joe Hart, before Pablo Zabaleta cleared it off the line.

City's only noteworthy goal attempts before the interval saw Dzeko head wide close in from Gaël Clichy's cross and Balotelli shoot straight at Asmir Begovic.

While it remained goalless, there was plenty of time to consider an interesting pre-match remark from Mancini. Asked about Sir Alex Ferguson's return volley about the "desperation" of signing Paul Scholes, the City manager said: "Don't worry, I have a big helmet." The mind boggles at the not-so-artistic impressions the tabloids could make out of that.

Back at the football, Dzeko spurned another opportunity by shooting too close to Begovic. Samir Nasri demanded a much more difficult save with a low drive from distance that had the Stoke goalkeeper plunging to the base of his right-hand post.

The longer the stalemate continued, the more it became a stage for Carlos Tevez to work the magic that turned the game against Chelsea, and another turnaround was what was required after 58 minutes, when Crouch gave Stoke the lead with a goal that bordered on the wondrous. Receiving the ball in the air, 30 yards out in the inside-right channel, he controlled it deftly with his right foot before volleying it high across Hart and into the England goalkeeper's top right corner.

It was a strike of which any player in the world would have been proud, and how the Potters' punters loved it, taunting their team's critics with choruses of "We only score from our throw-ins" and "One-nil to the rugby team".

City kept passing and passing, but foundered on the twin rocks of Stoke's resolute defence and their own shoddy finishing. Tevez was clearly needed, and it was a surprise that his introduction, in place of Barry, was delayed until the 73rd minute.

An even bigger surprise was the way in which City drew level, three minutes later. Touré, who has a kick like a shire horse, let fly from 35 yards and an attempt at a headed clearance by Shawcross succeeded only in diverting the ball beyond the reach of Begovic, whose reaching right hand had the shot covered.

Teams:

Stoke Begovic, Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson, Jerome (Pennant 51), Whelan, Whitehead, Etherington (Palacios 81), Walters, Crouch (Jones 90).

Subs Not Used: Sorensen, Upson, Delap, Shotton.

Booked: Wilson.

Goals: Crouch 59.

Man City Hart, Zabaleta (Milner 84), Richards, Toure, Clichy, Toure Yaya, Barry (Tevez 74), Silva (Johnson 62), Balotelli, Nasri, Dzeko.

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Savic, De Jong.

Booked: Barry, Toure Yaya.

Goals: Toure Yaya 76.

Att: 27, 535

Ref: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire).

Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1    Carlos makes his point
Wednesday 21st March 2012 : GYKO at the Etihad

It was the night Carlos Tevez was reintroduced to the Premier League but, for Manchester City, they will cherish what happened here for different reasons. Tevez's first appearance since September was only a sideshow compared to the real story of what this victory means for Roberto Mancini's team, the consequences at the top of the table and the message it sends to Manchester United.

This was the night they set a new Premier League record of 20 straight home wins but, of far greater importance, it was also the moment when they made it very clear they are not just going to crumple now the advantage is with the team from Old Trafford.

Alan Hansen had talked of this team being on the brink of "capitulation" after their defeat at Swansea and yet here they were, recovering from a goal down, showing the resolve and strength of personality that any team with genuine championship credentials needs.

They had gone behind after an hour, via Gary Cahill's deflected shot, to a Chelsea side that has rediscovered the art of winning football matches and, briefly, there was the inescapable sense of a telling, potentially devastating blow, to their title hopes.

Instead, what followed was a demonstration of the qualities that Mancini has been trying to cultivate. City kept pressing forward, Tevez was brought on for his energy and drive and, in the end, they wore Chelsea down. Sergio Agüero equalised with a 78th-minute penalty and then there was the final, frenzied onslaught of the Chelsea goal that eventually saw Samir Nasri poke in the goal which means City have clambered within a point of United.

Almost inevitably, Tevez was involved in the game's decisive moment. There were boos when he was introduced, but plenty of applause, too. Many supporters are clearly willing to overlook his transgressions if he can be of use between now and the end of the season. Here was his first contribution. With five minutes to go, Nasri exchanged passes with the Argentinean, carried on running and slipped his shot past Petr Cech.

Mancini's victory jig on the touchline encapsulated the emotions of the night. Afterwards, true to form, City's manager was not entirely satisfied.

Invited to praise Nasri, he chose instead to say the Frenchman "could do better". There was criticism of Balotelli – "I didn't like how he played" – and he admitted the team "had not played well for three or weeks". But there was relief, too. The fixture list is so obliging to Sir Alex Ferguson's team over the coming weeks that City simply had to win this match.

Mancini even borrowed the famous Ferguson line. "It felt like squeaky-bum time," he smiled.

For long spells the quality was low, from both sides. City, however, probably deserved to win on the balance of play and their sheer perseverance. Nasri was the most creative player on the pitch, hitting the crossbar with a first-half shot, and Yaya Touré was a key figure, driving forward from midfield.

Yet there were moments of carelessness, too. David Silva's usual accuracy with his passing had deserted him. Agüero looks like he is feeling the effects of a long, sapping season and Balotelli did not even make it beyond half-time. The Italian had run clear, courtesy of a horribly misplaced pass from Frank Lampard after 29 minutes, but dragged his shot wide and was scarcely involved otherwise.

Chelsea, too, looked weary, lacking structure, misplacing far too many passes, particularly Ramires and Raul Meireles. At times Fernando Torres looked sharper, in short bursts, than we have seen him for the most part this season. At other moments he reverted to being isolated, lacking the old sureness of touch, culminating in his scowling substitution.

City were missing both their first-choice centre-backs, Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, and could feasibly have been more vulnerable had Didier Drogba started.

Chelsea's goal came from their first shot on target. It originated from a corner and, as City struggled to clear their lines, they felt the referee, Mike Dean, should have stopped the play, first when Torres gave Touré a little nudge and then when David Luiz did similar alongside Gareth Barry, Balotelli's replacement. City had defended the corner poorly and when Cahill swung his right foot at the ball the ricochet off Touré was against them.

Mancini reacted by bringing on Tevez but it was City's other Argentineans' who combined for the equaliser, Pablo Zabaleta's shot striking the substitute Michael Essien's left arm and Agüero scoring, emphatically, from the penalty spot.

The stage was set for one final flourish and, between them, Tevez and Nasri reminded United how difficult it is going to be to shake off the team hanging on their shoulder.

Teams:

Man City Hart, Zabaleta, Richards, Toure, Clichy, Silva (Dzeko 76), Toure Yaya, De Jong (Tevez 66), Nasri, Aguero, Balotelli (Barry 46).

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Milner, Kolarov, Savic.

Booked: Nasri.

Goals: Aguero 78 pen, Nasri 85.

Chelsea Cech, Ivanovic (Bosingwa 21), Luiz, Cahill, Cole, Mikel, Meireles (Essien 58), Ramires, Lampard, Mata, Torres (Drogba 73).

Subs Not Used: Turnbull, Malouda, Kalou, Sturridge.

Booked: Mata, Lampard.

Goals: Cahill 60.

Att: 46, 324

Ref: Mike Dean (Wirral).
 

Manchester City 3 Sporting Lisbon 2    Euro Sceptics
Thursday 15th March 2012 : GYKO at the Etihad

Sporting Lisbon held off a dramatic Manchester City fight back to lose 3-2 but edge the English side out of the Europa League at the Etihad Stadium on away goals. City appeared in disarray as they fell 3-0 behind on aggregate following goals from Mathias Fernandez and Ricky van Wolfswinkel in the first half of the second leg of the last-16 tie.

Yet City were as good in the second period as they were bad in the first, hitting back through two Sergio Aguero goals and a Mario Balotelli penalty to fall agonisingly short of the quarter-finals.

The pulsating finish, which saw goalkeeper Joe Hart's last-gasp header tipped agonisingly wide, seemed highly unlikely at the break.

City were defensively poor, error prone and Balotelli was having one of his more volatile nights.

The striker even seemed to argue with manager Roberto Mancini after conceding the free-kick which led to Sporting's opener.

But after their rousing fight back City could take huge consolation from a performance which bodes well for the rest of their Barclays Premier League title challenge.

City had initially seemed in the mood as the game kicked off in a lively atmosphere, enhanced by a small band of excitable Sporting fans who let off some green flares.

After an early score when Stijn Schaars shot wide after a poor Stefan Savic clearance, City looked to attack.

Adam Johnson made two threatening runs and almost broke through as he looked to play a one-two with David Silva, but the Spaniard's return pass was well read by Anderson Polga.

Sporting had no intention of sitting back on their first-leg advantage and the impressive Fernandez found space to shoot, but his effort was blocked by Savic and first-leg goal scorer Xandao headed wide from the resulting corner.

Johnson volleyed wide from a Silva cross as City came forward again, but the hosts then began to show signs of early frustration and Sporting dug in.

First Yaya Toure was booked for throwing the ball into the ground after fouling Fernandez. Balotelli then took a Silva cross-field pass in his stride but Polga got across to deflect his shot wide.

As the ball bounced back off the advertising hoarding, Balotelli thumped it high into the stand.

Fernandez continued to pose a danger but was booked for diving after turning sharply in the area and tumbling following minimal contact from David Pizarro.

However, Fernandez got the break he wanted soon after with a stunning free-kick in the 33rd minute after a backtracking Balotelli clumsily bundled over former Liverpool defender Emiliano Insua.

Mancini appeared frustrated by Balotelli's actions - and exchanged words with his fellow Italian - but Fernandez took full advantage as he curled a fine shot around the wall which Hart could only palm in.

City were left needing four goals to progress after Sporting then grabbed their second of the night six minutes before the interval.

Aleksandar Kolarov headed clear a free-kick but was then caught out of position as Marat Izmailov stole in and crossed low for Van Wolfswinkel to tap in.

Mancini attempted to bring some solidity back to his side by sending on Nigel de Jong for Johnson at the start of the second half. Edin Dzeko also came off the bench to bolster the forward line, replacing midfielder David Pizarro.

The changes seemed to work as City became more measured in possession.

They eventually pulled one back on the hour as Yaya Toure, fed by Micah Richards, picked out Aguero in the box, who took a touch and turned to fire past Rui Patricio.

Balotelli then won a free-kick outside the area but Kolarov clipped his shot narrowly wide.

City suddenly began to sense an unlikely comeback as Aguero won a penalty after being felled by Renato Neto.

There was some debate as to whether the offence took place in the area, but Balotelli showed no sign of nerves with a cool penalty that left wrong-footed Patricio standing.

The game was truly on as Aguero remarkably put City ahead on the night - and level on aggregate - eight minutes from time.

The Argentinian was left unmarked at the back post as a Kolarov corner made its way to him via the head of Savic and he blasted in.

City began to pour forward in search of a winner and Dzeko headed over from a Kolarov cross before Balotelli went even closer with another header that drifted across goal.

Hart almost completed a sensational comeback as he went forward for a corner deep into injury time, but his header was tipped round the post by Patricio and there was no time to take the resulting corner.

Teams:

Man City Hart, Richards, Toure, Savic, Kolarov, Pizarro (Dzeko 55), Toure Yaya, Johnson (De Jong 46), Silva (Nasri 66), Balotelli, Aguero.

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Milner, Clichy, Roman.

Booked: Toure Yaya, Kolarov, Savic, Balotelli.

Goals: Aguero 60, Balotelli 75 pen, Aguero 82.

Sporting Rui Patricio, Daniel Carrico, Xandao, Anderson Polga, Insua, Bruno Pereirinha, Fernandez (Neto 63), Schaars, Diego Capel (Jeffren 63), Izmailov, van Wolfswinkel (Carrillo 68).

Subs Not Used: Marcelo, Evaldo, Andre Santos, Rubio.

Booked: Fernandez, Daniel Carrico, Anderson Polga.

Goals: Fernandez 33, van Wolfswinkel 40.

Agg (3-3) Sporting win on away goals rule

Att: 38, 021

Ref: Tom Harald Hagen (Norway).

Swansea 1 Manchester City 0      They're singing in Wales
Sunday 11th March 2012 : Matt Simpson for GYKO at t

Manchester City are buckling under the weight of their immense ambitions. The lack of fluency against a bold and adventurous Swansea City led to defeat for Roberto Mancini's side. For the first time since 15 October a set of fixtures has been completed without them at the head of the Premier League. It is Manchester United who top the table by a point.

That is a slim margin, but it contributes to the sense that City have begun to seize up. Few opportunities were devised and they cannot count on luck to come to the rescue. An apparent equaliser by Micah Richards in the closing moments was denied correctly because he was offside by a fraction, but on another afternoon the officials' judgment might not have been so acute.

As it was, there was just one goal and it was relished by Brendan Rodgers's side, who merited their triumph. This match had always been a trial for the visitors. Mancini was sufficiently concerned to reconfigure his side at an early stage, with a visibly irritated Gareth Barry withdrawn so that Sergio Agüero could come on in the 38th minute and offer verve to a rejigged lineup.

The sight of Yaya Touré shooting high just before the interval was itself an improvement. City's difficulties were not so great a shock since Swansea began the day sharing the best defensive record at home in the Premier League with Liverpool, even if that stringency has been fading a little. The real surprise came with City conceding a penalty in only the second minute.

Perhaps that ought to have been interpreted as a first indication of alarms to come. There was contact between Wayne Routledge and Joe Hart, but the poor shot from Scott Sinclair was dealt with comfortably. The midfielder may have been put off by gesturing and apparent comments from the goalkeeper. Apart from that incident, the endeavour led to little excitement, despite the fact that City have scored more away goals than any other team in England's top flight.

The record held by a side who had come to the Liberty Stadium as leaders of the Premier League does not necessarily imply that all of City's verve is intact. On Thursday, for instance, they had gone down 1-0 in Lisbon to Sporting, making the return leg problematic in that Europa League tie. It was unsettling, too, that the centre-backs Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany were absent through injury.

Of course, all the concerns that City may have are liable to be ridiculed when so much is in the favour of a club with an apparently limitless budget. It is far too late now for the average observer to harbour much compassion for them, but the bid for significant trophies and the public assumption that City will prevail does put stress on the squad.

There is no resemblance to the period when it was almost being taken for granted that, say, David Silva had already clinched the footballer of the year award. Now we will discover if City can grind as well as glide. Nothing will come easy now that vulnerability has been laid bare.

Those who like a moral tone even in football could rejoice. Swansea, with comparatively small means, outdid City in open play for the majority of the afternoon. That penalty at the outset turned out not to be just a random incident. It highlighted insecurity that would be repeated as Swansea made inroads and looked as if they had never heard of the opposing players, let alone dreaded being pitted against them.

That indicated a startling development process. The hosts here are far more capable of posing problems than they were when going down 4-0 to City at Eastlands on the opening weekend of the Premier League campaign. Any concerns of late have been of a lesser order for Rodgers's lineup, but he might have been unsettled by the fact that they had not kept a clean sheet on their own pitch since a defeat of Fulham on 10 December.

That was put to rights. Swansea also achieved a first win at home since overcoming Arsenal in mid-January. Correcting that trend was no simple matter for Rodgers when Mancini seemingly had so much firepower, yet Swansea did thwart them by attacking when feasible and showing discipline when City were in possession.

Mancini's side looked frustrated and were indignant when no penalty was given after an hour, although Joe Allen's contact on Touré had occurred outside the 18-yard line. Later, Micah Richards would demand a save from Michel Vorm, but City were to be stifled by their own predictability and undone with a header from the unmarked substitute Luke Moore after 83 minutes.

The smothering of the free-spirited attacks that we saw not so very long ago was to be anticipated to an extent, but City ought still to breathe a little more easily than they did here. That, indeed, is Mancini's responsibility. He therefore has to commit himself to a new task. Improbable as it might seem, he has players to deal with who, despite the limitless millions, will feel apprehensive about the weeks to come.

Teams

Swansea Vorm, Rangel, Williams, Caulker, Taylor, Allen, Britton, Sinclair, Sigurdsson, Routledge (Monk 87), Graham (Moore 79).

Subs Not Used: Tremmel, Tate, McEachran, Lita, Gower.

Goals: Moore 83.

Man City Hart, Richards, Savic, Toure, Clichy, Barry (Aguero 37), De Jong (Johnson 84), Nasri, Toure Yaya, Silva (Dzeko 87), Balotelli.

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Milner, Pizarro, Kolarov.

Booked: De Jong, Balotelli.

Att: 20,510

Ref: Lee Mason (Lancashire).

Sporting Lisbon 1 Manchester City 0  
Thursday 8th March 2012 : Stuart Brough
for GYKO at the Estádio José Alvalade

The Manchester City juggernaut stuttered here with a faltering performance that is hardly prime preparation for the tricky weekend trip to Swansea City in the Premier League.

Vincent Kompany's loss early on, to a calf injury, will also concern Roberto Mancini, who said of the result: "It wasn't a surprise because anything can happen in football but I don't think we deserved to lose. Maybe we didn't play well, but football is strange. We have another 90 minutes, we have a big chance to go through, it will be a different game and I think we will score." Of Kompany, Mancini added: "We have to wait one or two days. It is his calf and a calf is a bad position [to have an injury]. I hope for Vinny it will be short – 10 days, maybe two weeks maximum."

After the back-heeled winner from the Brazilian Xandão that came with a touch of Copacabana beach to beat Joe Hart, Mancini's players will be conscious they require a far better performance in the second leg of this Europa League last‑16 tie at Eastlands next week if they are to progress.

Mancini had decided to leave Micah Richards out of the match squad "so as not to risk him" before the Swansea game, and to leave Samir Nasri and Mario Balotelli – who as a replacement hit the bar late on with a header – on the bench. He also chose to deploy Gaël Clichy at right-back, which was a puzzle: the versatile James Milner, who has played there before, may have been a better fit.

Against Portugal's fourth-placed club, who are 14 points behind the leaders, City struggled for fluidity throughout. A quiet opening half produced a share of possession and chances with each side rallying at the close: for Sporting, Matias Fernández's run into the area was blocked as he got his shot off; then a free-kick from Joleon Lescott – on for Kompany after eight minutes – was nodded on by Edin Dzeko before Sergio Agüero could only head straight at the keeper, Rui Patrício.

Mancini's men had suffered the first early scare when Hart was forced to leave his area for a headed clearance. As the ball fell to Stijn Schaars an instant attempted lob had the keeper back-pedalling, yet though it was a decent effort the ball was steered wide.

As the defence adjusted to Kompany's absence, Sporting again came at City via João Pereira, whose shot was saved well low down by Hart. Any smooth pass-and-move from City occurred only sporadically as their front four of Milner, Agüero, David Silva and Dzeko struggled to surge at Sporting with convincing force. A Gareth Barry pass took Aleksandar Kolarov down the left-back's corridor. From the corner he won, Milner niftily swapped passes with Silva before aiming in a cross from which Kolo Touré drew a sharp save from Patrício with a header.

There were further warnings that the visitors would concede if concentration wandered. After Diego Capel moved the ball from left to right to find Marat Izmailov, who blazed wide, moments later Nigel de Jong missed a tackle deep inside the Sporting half. Fernández raced forward as City reversed towards their own penalty area but when the midfielder spread the ball wide to the right he failed to take the return pass and the danger faded.

Too often disjointed, City's best chance of scoring appeared to be from a set piece, which illustrates the quality deficit they displayed. Another Milner-Silva-Milner move from a corner created space for the Englishman to shoot, but when his miskicked effort took the ball to Barry the midfielder could not finish from in front of goal.

After 33 minutes Sporting had come close to taking the lead by the kind of fluke required to light up a so far tepid contest: a deflection from a delivery by Emiliano Insúa, once of Liverpool, spun dangerously close to Hart's goal and the keeper had to move smartly to tip away the ball from beneath his bar.

There was no fortune about Sporting's goal six minutes after the break. From a free-kick conceded by Kolo Touré the delivery was pinged in on the diagonal where Hart, diving to his left, pushed the ball out. It arrived at the feet of Xandão, whose initial shot was saved well by the keeper, but the Brazilian applied a touch off the back of his boot for the defender to record his first goal for Sporting.

As the decibel level from the roar inside the stadium rocketed City nearly allowed the home side's lead to double. João Pereira swung over a cross from the right and as Hart came to claim the ball Lescott – who picked up a groin problem – stuck out a leg: the ball might have gone anywhere but, fortunately for City, a corner, not an own goal, was conceded.

Unlike their Premier League cousins Arsenal in the Champions League after their 4-0 hammering in Milan, City are still very much in their European competition ahead of the return game. But they will have to improve.

Teams

Sporting Rui Patricio, Joao Pereira, Xandao, Anderson Polga, Insua, Fernandez (Neto 69), Daniel Carrico, Schaars, Diego Capel (Carrillo 75), Izmailov (Bruno Pereirinha 59), van Wolfswinkel.

Subs Not Used: Marcelo, Rodriguez, Evaldo, Rubio.

Booked: Izmailov, Anderson Polga, Joao Pereira, Neto.

Goals: Xandao 51.

Man City Hart, Clichy, Kompany (Lescott 12), Toure, Kolarov, Milner, De Jong, Barry (Nasri 59), Silva, Aguero, Dzeko (Balotelli 71).

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Pizarro, Johnson, Savic.

Booked: De Jong, Kolarov.

Att: 34,371

Ref: Carlos Velasco Carballo (Spain).
 

Manchester City 2 Bolton Wanderers 0    Trotters Left Wandering
Saturday 3rd March 2012 : GYKO at the Etihad

Equalling records cannot get any more routine than this. Bolton barely made Manchester City sweat as Roberto Mancini's team racked up their 19th consecutive home win in the league, matching a feat only previously achieved in the Premier League era by their red-clad neighbours, who did likewise last year.

For a long time here it seemed the only thing that could prevent City from opening up a five-point lead over United at the top of the table ahead of the latter's game at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was the haphazard finishing of Mario Balotelli, who squandered a bevy of chances in a game that City dominated.

The Italian was a risk of being dropped for the game given that newspaper photographs published in the buildup showed him emerging from a Liverpool nightspot at 3am on Friday, but Mancini decided to start the striker pending an investigation. "If it is true, I will be disappointed because it is not correct for a professional," said Mancini of his controversy-magnet of a compatriot.

"I will talk to him and, if it is true, I will fine him the maximum [two weeks wages]," added Mancini before, only half-jokingly, commenting: "Maybe if he had more sleep he would have scored three or four goals today." The manager will meet his player on Sunday . Balotelli has already broken a curfew this season, having been spotted in a Manchester restaurant late at night less than 48 hours before the December loss at Chelsea.

The decision to deploy Balotelli against Bolton was perhaps made easier by the fact Sergio Agüero was deemed unable to start after playing for Argentina in midweek. The influential David Silva was also rested. The last time City started without that pair – against Sunderland on New Year's Day – they lost 1-0, but Bolton never looked capable of inflicting such a setback here.

City threatened to blow away Wanderers from the start. Samir Nasri had a close-range shot blocked in the first minute even before the Balotelli misses began. The Italian was first put through in the third minute by a fine ball from Yaya Touré, who revelled in the advanced role usually assigned to Silva. From an acute angle, Balotelli struck a shot off the post and Nasri fired the follow-up straight at goalkeeper Adam Bogdan from eight yards out.

One minute later, Yaya Touré romped through the Bolton defence to tee up Balotelli again, but this time the striker shot wide from six yards. David Pizarro, the on-loan Chilean making his full debut for the club, put Balotelli through for another opportunity in the 12th minute. The striker had time to slip and get back up before booming a shot over.

A goal was inevitable, but the source of the shot was a shock. Clichy, with one goal in professional football, found the net in the 23rd minute, albeit with the help of a deflection off Gretar Steinsson, which took the Frenchman's strike from 25 yards out beyond the keeper.

City lapsed into complacency after that and allowed Bolton a few shots on goal, the most dangerous coming in the 36th minute, when Joe Hart had to tip Ryo Miyaichi's low effort wide. The hosts reasserted themselves before the break and created several more chances, most of them falling to Balotelli. One shot on the turn from the Italian forced a fine save from Bogdan.

The second half was barely under way when a clever pass from Gareth Barry put Balotelli through for another duel with the goalkeeper. Again Bogdan won, pushing away the striker's tame finish. By contrast, Bogdan got nowhere near a long-range blast by Kolo Touré a moment later and was relieved to see it whizz narrowly wide.

In a bid to kill off the game, Mancini switched to a two-striker formation in the 62nd minute, introducing Edin Dzeko for Pizarro. The ball was almost immediately put in the Bolton net – but by a Bolton player, Darren Pratley almost scoring a spectacular own goal by poking the ball off Dzeko's foot and on to his own crossbar from 20 yards out.

In the 69th minute, Balotelli finally found the net. Adam Johnson dodged between Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts before producing a fine backheeled cross from the byline, whereupon Balotelli showed his goal instinct was intact after all by beating the defenders to the ball and tapping it into the net. Game over.

The title race, however, is far from over and Mancini expects it to become tighter later on Sunday at White Hart Lane. "I think United will win because they are a strong team. If we want to win the championship we need to win the next 10 games."

Teams:

Man City Hart, Zabaleta (Toure 19), Kompany, Lescott, Clichy, Toure Yaya, Barry, Johnson, Pizarro (Dzeko 61), Nasri (Milner 84), Balotelli.

Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Aguero, Silva.

Goals: Steinsson 23 og, Balotelli 69.

Bolton Bogdan, Steinsson, Knight, Wheater, Ricketts, Mark Davies, Reo-Coker, Ream, Pratley (Muamba 87), Miyaichi, Ngog.

Subs Not Used: Jaaskelainen, Robinson, Eagles, Petrov, Klasnic,

Sordell.

Att: 47, 219

Ref: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).

 

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