There was more than a hint of resignation about Roberto Mancini’s post-match press conference following Manchester City’s 1-0 defeat against Arsenal that all but ended his side’s title hopes.
Having overseen an insipid display from his richly-assembled ensemble cast, Mancini’s lack of indignation over the late Mikel Arteta goal that left City eight points adrift of title rivals Manchester United with six games to go betrayed a man who had given up hope on both the Premier League title and the man who had branded him a father-figure just weeks before.
Mario Balotelli’s performances, or lack of them, in recent weeks has thrust him into the headlines once more, but on Sunday following his sending off, the sorry realisation that he may never learn from his mistakes must have hit an understandably downcast Mancini.
"I am finished. We have six games and he (Balotelli) will not play in the next six games," Mancini dejectedly told reporters after the game.
Asked whether he will be selling the former Inter Milan striker at the end of the current campaign, Mancini replied: "Probably - but I don't know. It depends, because Balotelli is a fantastic player.
"I can’t continue to play with Mario on the pitch. Every time, we risk one sent off, like today.
"But he can score also in the last minute," he offered at the end, as a vague ray of hope in the Italian’s future at the Etihad Stadium.
While the public outcry continues to lambast Balotelli, who finally received the red card he deserved in the 20th minute for his crude tackle on Alex Song with the game drawing to a close, his failings cannot hide the problems that have beset City and derailed their title race.
Mancini fielded question after question on Baloteli and his future – the former Inter Milan boss must at least be grateful that his side’s poor performance and failings were not put under a brighter spotlight by reporters gunning for the story that would come to fill the column inches on Monday morning.
Before their game at the Emirates, Mancini had declared that if United were allowed to open up an eight point gap then the title race would be over. As soon as Arsenal grabbed the initiative by the scruff of the neck on Sunday afternoon, there was little doubt that City’s faltering title challenge would be put to bed.
So hopeless was their performance against Arsenal that it came as a surprise that it took the home side until the 87th minute to grab the winner - if this was a game on which the title depended, no one had told the away team.
Before Mikel Arteta’s fine long-range winner, City had rode their luck and somehow managed to stay in the game.
Robin van Persie, now without a goal in four league games, struck the post twice while how Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen and Yossi Benayoun all conspired to miss the target with 14 minutes remaining will remain one of the great mysteries of the season when it draws to an end next month.
All the while City stuttered and stumbled, admittedly without the influence of both David Silva, who was ruled out of the game with a knee knock, and Yaya Toure who limped off early on in the game.
Both players have been the crux of City’s inspired performances this season, and the sight of them creaking in the absence of both coupled with the lack of sharpness from Sergio Aguero thanks to his medical spray-induced absence left Mancini’s side looking a shadow of their former selves.
Silva, an early contender for player of the season and once the only real obstacle in Robin van Persie’s coronation as the finest player in the land, has grinded to a halt in recent months. It is no coincidence that his side’s stumble has coincided with his.
While he leads the way in the assists table this season with twelve, the Spaniard hasn’t laid on a goal for a team-mate since the 3-2 win over Tottenham in January while his last league goal came back in the corresponding fixture against Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium before Christmas.
The former Valencia man is no doubt suffering from tiredness – he remains City’s most used outfield player – and as his influence waned his side’s form went off the boil; they picked up just five points from their last five league games.
Of course, it is easy to criticise City for the failings having seen them surrender a surrender an five point advantage that now stands at an eight point deficit – while they have stumbled Manchester United have demonstrated a ruthless streak that runs through the club regardless of its personnel.
Undefeated in the league since January, United now have equalled the points tally they achieved in the treble winning season of 1998/99 with six games remaining – a run that City have quite simply been unable to live with.
While the furore over Balotelli’s behaviour and future may be the focus for many, City have the much larger problem of addressing their flaws, including inevitable personnel changes, before another title assault next season.
Balotelli may form part of the problem but he is only part of the puzzle, one aspect of many that has helped scupper their campaign of late.
Mancini has found himself in similar territory before, where he was at once praised for his firm stance before softening and allowing another trouble-maker with plenty of previous back into his ranks.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson had kind words for Mancini as he banished Carlos Tevez from the Etihad Stadium, declaring the Argentinian as ‘finished’ at the club, before a u-turn that the Scot pointed to as a weakness when matters became heated between the two clubs last month.
Both Balotelli and Tevez have certainly compromised City at times, but their away form, ponderous pace and defensive mentality at times must be at the forefront of their thoughts this summer.
For now, a 44 year wait for a league trophy will surely be extended for 12 more months. While there a few suggestions Mancini will not get another crack of the whip and another opportunity to break United’s monopoly next season he will consider the ups and downs of this turbulent campaign a harsh lesson in what it takes to topple the perennial champions across the city.
For now Balotelli is the villain, but his performance and sending off should not hide what was exposed at the Emirates Stadium; that City are still someway short of becoming Premier League Champions.
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