In memoriam: Man City’s title challenge
By Louis Baxter
This summer, I played a weekly Monday night football game, one that I’d been playing on and off since sixth form. I wasn’t the best player there, but on my day, I could influence the game. Perhaps due to my fragile mental state, I’d decided that I was the Lionel Messi to their Robbie Savage. I decided that I didn’t have to run or track back, that I didn’t have to try or tackle. Every week would involve me being heckled and had me function as a focal point for my teammates’ fury. I didn’t get it. Did they not see me volley that goal in from 30 yards, or score with that back-heel? What the fuck was their problem?
Well, it was that I spent 40 minutes of the game standing around doing nothing, that I wouldn’t go so far as to put a foot in when people ran past me, and that having me on their team meant there was one more player they couldn’t pass to. I was deadwood, and something great every now and again just made it worse, made it that much more frustrating. Arrogance had infected my game like a cancer, to the point where there was close to nothing left of it. And on a much vaster scale of talent and expectation, the same has happened to Mario Balotelli, and ultimately, Manchester City in this season that started so magically.
The beginning of the season feels like some impossible fever dream now. Something that I’m told happened, but I can’t conceive as to how or why. In 2011, City were a team to take all comers, a team whose arms were permanently stretched into a ‘Come at me bro’ pose and were destroying everyone 3, 4, 5-0. There were no ways to handle or contain us. David Silva had morphed from a great deal of promise last season into the best player in the Premier League, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko were scoring goals for fun and our defence, with the towering Vincent Kompany leading, and Joe Hart, the best English goalkeeper since Gordon Banks, letting nothing in. We took an unbeaten record into December and achingly premature comparisons were being made to Barcelona, Real Madrid and the rest. A generation of City fans who remember when Andy Morrison was our centre-back and Gillingham’s Robert Taylor was seen as very good get for City, didn’t know how to process it. It was crazy, right? The dark days were finally over and years upon years of being the idiot brother to an all-consuming juggernaut were over. Maybe we’d get to be top of the roost for a while.
Then things started to go wrong. An early Champions League exit you could rationalize. It was our first time round, right? And hey, United ballsed up too, so we can cut a loss. Then in, what I’d call an extremely important and game-changing loss, United knocked us out of the FA Cup at the Etihad, and gained the upper hand. We then proceeded to crash out of the Carling Cup and the Europa League, and points and wins seemed much harder to come by. We used to score when we wanted, but now it seemed to take a seismic event for us to break defences down. This failure is on Mancini as far as I’m concerned. The man had a Plan A, and for a few months Plan A worked a treat. But then teams packed their defences, man-marked David Silva and asked us to respond. And from January up until now, this lowest of low moments, we haven’t really been able to.
Mancini believed that Plan A was the right way, and it was just a matter of refining it and clicking it into place again. As a manager, his intelligence began to morph into arrogance, a stubborn insistence that he didn’t need to walk around the wall, he could just push through it. Mancini’s unbending belief in his own ‘genius’, a moniker he applied to himself in a television interview, was ultimately misplaced. He has talent, but his abrasive personality and son-of-a-bitch mannerisms meant players didn’t warm to him. He couldn’t motivate them. And almost every player on the pitch seemed to descend into a slow, irretrievable loss of form and Mancini clearly didn’t understand why, nor did he understand how to stop it. Second place by an acre will humble Mancini, I hope, and perhaps make him grow a capacity for reconsideration, and put a huge dent in his ideal world where every decision he makes is the right one. He fucked up. And in a non-more pointed way than his unwavering belief in one Mario Balotelli, the player that in the script-running matinee in Mancini’s mind was always going to save the day at the last moment. The player that was going to repay his faith in him and show the world that Mancini, unlike all the haters and the doubters, saw the diamond in the rough. In this script, Balotelli stepped onto the Emirates and scored a hat-trick yesterday.
In reality, Balotelli proved that you can’t sculpt a diamond out of an untamed volcanic fireball, and if you try, you’re just going to end up with lava all over your face. He was woeful, undisciplined, selfish, and all the things City fans have come to expect of him. Balotelli has started each of the last five games – his longest first team stretch of the entire season – and it is not a coincidence that this is when City have truly imploded. He’s a player that is fundamentally incapable of playing as part of a team and sabotages the overall play and spirit in pursuit of his own selfish validation. So yeah, he may score a few goals, he may have a few good games. But 13 goals and no assists is not worth the damage done, which culminating in yesterday, has nearly been apocalyptic to both City’s title challenge and our image. He’s turned us into a laughing stock, and that’s unfair to some of the phenomenal football we’ve played this year.
There’ll be neutrals, those who hate City for their money, but enjoy the Balotelli sideshow, who stand up for the man, but they’re just being asinine. The truth is this is a record-breaking, brilliant team undone by the petulance of a man truly not worth the shirt, and the manager who placed his bets, and probably his job, on a man who doesn’t have the capacity to come through for anyone. And seeing Balotelli play yesterday, I could see the misplaced self-belief, the arrogance and the moodiness and the effect it has. I feel retrospectively guilty for the way I played, and that affected 15, maximum 20, guys. Balotelli just did it to an entire community. What a joke. Clown football awaits him in the Qatar or the MLS, and quite frankly, I can’t wait to cast out the deadwood and come back next year with calm heads on our shoulders, ready to take everything a bit more seriously. In the mean time, you can find me somewhere between the first and second circles of hell, preparing to see United lift it yet again.