Europa League verdict: Manchester City 3 Red Bull Salzburg 0
Goals: Balotelli 18 and 66 mins, Johnson 79 mins for City.
A convincing victory. Qualification for the knock-out stages. Another clean sheet. A good workout for squad players. No notable injuries picked up. Boateng and Balotelli both taking the opportunity to improve their sharpness. All in all, it could hardly have gone better.
As expected Roberto Mancini rotated his squad. Kolo Toure, Balotelli and Boateng are the most likely of the starters to feature against Bolton.
This was a more attack minded side than we’re used to seeing from Mancini, with Vieira as the only natural defensive midfielder. Alongside him was Milner, who benefitted from his greater involvement in the game.
James’ stamina and steadiness are more suited to a slightly deeper role, though he does need to improve his tackling if he’s to play there against stronger opponents. Salzburg were undeniably poor, particularly in the early stages and City could afford a casual approach.
For the first time Balotelli played as a central striker from the start. Wright-Phillips was on the right, Johnson on the left, and Jo had a floating role. As is Mancini’s way, there was regular rotation of these positions with even Wright-Phillips taking a turn as striker at one point!
With all this creativity in the side City had little trouble carving out openings. With the likes of Wright-Phillips and Johnson, the team were a little more direct than when de Jong and Silva play. Balotelli also looks to use his pace to run through on goal and doesn’t drop deep to link up play as much as Tevez.
There were several chances prior to the first goal, with the clearest going to Jo who took a tumble rather than shooting when clean through.
The Brazilian did at least lay off the ball to Zabaleta, who then crossed for Balotelli to volley home. It was one of the few crosses to find Balotelli, and the Italian pointed to where his team-mates should have played the ball on several other occasions.
Mario is a different kind of striker to Tevez, and playing the ball into the right spaces to make the most of his pace is something the midfield need to learn. This match was a useful exercise in demonstrating where we can make the most of his talents.
There were flashes from Balotelli where he demonstrated his outstanding talent. He rarely looked happy and often appears to be playing the game within his own Mario world.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that he considers his time at Eastlands little more than a gap year before joining AC Milan. However he does appear to listen to Mancini, and could be seen regularly taking instructions from the manager during the first half.
Mancini knows the player better than anyone else at City and it will be fascinating to see if his faith in the 20-year-old is going to be rewarded.
“The fact that he didn’t celebrate is just him. It is normal for him to score. He does it every day. I think he can run more, take more of his chances and choose different options sometimes when passing. I know there is more to come.
“Adam and Mario could become two of the most exciting players in the world if they think on the pitch and sustain their form.
“In years to come Adam may look back and think ‘Roberto was correct’. I hope that he knows I say these things because I believe in Adam.”
Elsewhere, Wright-Phillips impressed with his skill in emerging from tight situations, before repeatedly failing to provide an end product. Likewise Jo didn’t do enough to suggest he should be in the starting eleven.
Come January these two, along with Adebayor, Bridge, Given and possibly Lescott are all going to be linked with moves if they’re not getting Premier League action. This begs the question as to how Mancini will then be able to properly rotate his squad.
As we saw in the Carling Cup, with many of our best youngsters on loan, there isn’t the quality in the Elite Development Squad to make the step up into a winning first team. If too many players leave in January, Mancini will either have to risk exhausting the likes of Tevez or play a severely weakened team in the cup competitions.
At least we’re now sure to be in Europe after Christmas. On such a cold night, with the game live on TV it was great to see a crowd of over 37,000. The ‘kids for a quid’ offer certainly paid off with a lot of youngsters present. Well done to the club for this.