Saturday, 10 March 2012

Europa League: City still favourites despite defeat

Ok it wasn't exactly a great performance, certainly nothing like we've become accustomed to this season. But lets face it, we've been spoiled rotten so far with very few disappointments compared to our Jekyll and Hyde existence in seasons past.

Sporting hadn't lost at home in Europe for the last 9 games. They'd won all 5 of their games there this season, scoring 9 and conceding just 2, so it was never going to be a walkover.

The final score was disappointing, but there are positives that can be taken with the negatives. Not least that Mario Balotelli seems to be quickly growing into the player many of us saw he could become when he signed last season.

Although he was only on for 20 minutes or so, he changed the entire game for City and very nearly pulled back a goal for a draw were it not for the crossbar. Sporting simply couldn't handle him and were drawn into fouling him several times around the area, conceding a number of bookings in the process.

Balotelli is quickly maturing and starting to repay the faith and time that Mancini has invested in the young Italian. Those who ever doubted his natural talent are being proved wrong one by one. For me, there was one thing during his stint on the pitch that summed up the brilliant unpredictability of Balotelli, his cross into Silva was something that would be spoke about for weeks had it been done by Ronaldo or Messi.

Bursting through the left side of the 18 yard box, does he take the easy and natural option of crossing it with his left foot? No, not our Mario. It was a short rabona cross as good as you'll ever see which was sadly prodded wide by Silva. Great tekkers.

Several key players were having off  days though. Silva, Aguero, Barry, De Jong, Dzeko, and Milner were all below their usual standards overall, some more than others. But everyone is allowed an off day every now and then.

There were other key players missing from the side too. Both Richards and Zabaleta were missing due to injury which meant Clichy had to fill in at right-back and was clearly not as effective as he is on the left. Yaya Toure was suspended and his forceful movement through the centre was also a miss.

Then to compound problems, Kompany pulled up with a calf strain early in the first half and is likely to be out for up to 2 weeks. Lescott also played through a slight groin injury towards the end of the game which may keep him out of the game against Swansea.

What was a really telling though, is that this was by far the biggest game of the season for Sporting as they played out of their skins. The celebrations of players and fans when they scored and at the final whistle were comparable to if they had actually won the Europa League.

Despite this, I don't think Sporting showed anything to say that they are in the driving seat to walk away from the Etihad Stadium with a passage into the next round. That's not to say City will walk the 2nd leg as I expect Sporting to put in another resilient performance and try and hit City on the break.

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