It was always going to happen. My first piece for The Huffington Post UK and I'm already writing about Mario Balotelli. Castigated by various sections of the media, many would have you believe that the Italian, regarded initially as a loveable character but now as a drain on our sanity, is the sole reason as to why Manchester City might not win the Premier League this season.
With the explosive Manchester derby to come on Monday, the destination of the title is still up in the air, but the Reds are favourites and if United do prove superior and bask in the glory of their twentieth title, the obvious scapegoat in the eyes of the media is Balotelli. That, however, is far too lazy and simplistic. He is certainly one factor, but a relatively minor one in the grand scale of events.
I firmly believe perspective is needed with Balotelli. Yes, he's a hugely volatile and temperamental individual, someone who is just as likely to score the winning goal as he is to celebrate it by attacking the opposition manager, but for someone who is 21 years of age, living in a foreign country having left his friends and family behind, he deserves far more respect than he currently receives.
This season, he has scored 17 goals from 31 games in all competitions and included in that statistic are some vitally important strikes. The first goal in the 6-1 humiliation of United springs to mind due to the celebration, but the actually quality of the finish was superb. Equally, he scored the first goal away at Stamford Bridge, a tremendously composed strike within the opening two minutes, whilst it was him who made the breakthrough at the Etihad Stadium against a stubborn Everton team. Away at Napoli in the Champions League, his goal gave City hope of progressing and it was his coolness from the penalty spot which secured an injury-time winner against Spurs.
When pitted against his rivals, his record speaks for itself. Looking at the candidates for PFA Young Player of the Year, the names of Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck immediately stand out. Both are recognised as having had impressive seasons, both have even made their England debuts this campaign, yet from 37 appearances each, they have scored just 12 and 11 goals respectively. Compared to Balotelli, that's pitiful, but because they are not likely to make the back page of papers due to off-field antics, they receive almost ubiquitous praise.
That is not to say Balotelli ought to be considered for young player of the year, but merely that his achievements should be respected for what they are. There is the overbearing sense that he is judged not just on his performances for City, but by his all-round behaviour, and that is perhaps a touch unfair.
Without doubt, his displays over the past couple of months have been nowhere near good enough, though he is not alone in that regard. He is, at times, a liability and merits the vitriolic criticism that has been sent in his direction, but to suggest he is the sole reason City's title ambitions might not be achieved is as pathetic as it is naive.
It seems to me that there are a whole number of other factors as to why City might finish second, whether that is as a consequence of injuries to key players, the drop in form of certain individuals or merely down to Manchester United's relentless pursuit of the title.
David Silva's early season brilliance has been well documented, but his lull from around Christmas time seriously thwarted City's creative output and is, for me, the single most influential reason why it's unlikely the Blues will lift the title. At the start of the campaign, his effortless majesty was a joy to watch, but as he suffered from fatigue and injury, so did City in front of goal, notably due to the lack of quality opportunities presented to the strikers. At his best, Silva is the one player who makes City tick but he has struggled to maintain his high standards throughout and has only seemingly recovered in the past couple of outings.
The absence of Yaya Touré, such an imposing presence in midfield, to the African Cup of Nations has been cited as a factor, though the Blues won four of the five Premier League fixtures that the Ivorian missed, so his departure may not have been as disruptive as initially felt. It did, however, affect the rhythm and style of football played, but without impacting too greatly upon results.
Far more damaging, in my eyes, has been the woeful away form since early November. Following the defeat of QPR at Loftus Road, City recorded just a pair of victories in the subsequent ten matches on the road, losing half and scoring a mere five goals in the process. For a side with genuine title aspirations, that was well below-par and contributed heavily to United taking the lead in the race for the league. The Blues' form at the Etihad Stadium has been absolutely terrific, dropping just two points all season, but on their travels it has been a different matter entirely.
Moreover, the fact that last season's player of the year and top goalscorer was spending his days playing golf in Argentina instead of helping City should not be overlooked. Carlos Tévez could rival Balotelli for off-pitch headlines, but he's a proven performer and someone whose goals fired us to the Champions League last season. So for him to miss the vast majority of the campaign after that night in Munich was a huge blow. City didn't exactly struggle without the Argentine, leading the Premier League and producing some exquisite football in the meantime, but such is the impact Tévez has made since returning, one can't help but wonder what might have been the case had he been present throughout.
But the one factor often ignored yet which is imperative is a certain team named Manchester United. It pains me to say it as a City fan, but they are really rather good. They don't necessarily have the quality in their squad that the Blues possess, but their ruthlessness and desire to win at all costs means they are victorious in matches when nowhere near their best. And that, as we regularly hear, is a sign of champions.
Before their loss to Wigan, a result which gave City renewed hope, United had won eleven and drawn one of their previous twelve Premier League matches. At any stage of the season, that is to be admired, but with the pressure on towards the end of the campaign, it is a phenomenal record. Their experience and knowhow is frequently brought up in the press, and along with those elements, it is their resolve and utter tenacity that enables them to prevail so often.
It is easy to look at City and wonder where it has gone wrong (if indeed finishing second with a possible record points tally is 'wrong'), but to lay the blame purely on the unpredictable shoulders of Mario Balotelli is just not right. You never know, he might pop up in the Derby and score the winner. We can but dream.
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