|"Ees what you have?!"|
Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering The Zone. The Edge. The edge of the zone, at the very least. Please close the door as you come through, because there’s a bit of a draft in here.
Champions League. Dynamo Kiev, away. Swollen glands, clammy hands, weeping eyes. Throw in some grass allergies, an urgent need for signs of life and let’s get cooking.
Indulging today’s pampered superstars can sometimes leave you with puffy cheeks and streaming eyes. Cheeks were certainly being puffed out and a few eyes may have shed a tear of frustration at the weekend when City forewent their opportunity to plough on towards a third FA Cup final in six years. Fat faces and waterworks were also on the agenda when City last bestrode Ukrainian ground, in 2010-11.
On that occasion, Mario Balotelli, the one soul over recent years at City who needed the kid gloves most frequently, developed his infamous allergy to grass.
Almost exactly 5 years ago, City had been drawn against Dynamo Kiev in the round of 16 of the 2010-11 edition of the Europa League. Hard work had been made of a group phase that involved Juventus, Lech Poznan and Red Bull Salzburg, with City well beaten in Poland but coming back with a neat new dance instead. Doing the Poznan may have annoyed and bewildered opposition fans in equal amounts, but its visual impact in the FA Cup semi final with Manchester United later that same season would be epic.
City had struggled past the wall of pyrotechnics at Aris Thessaloniki in the first knock-out round to reach a last 32 encounter with Kiev. Roberto Mancini’s continuing indulgence of the wayward Balotelli would eventually cost the club further advancement in the tournament, as the Italian went on a one-man campaign of destruction.
In freezing conditions, with the normally suave Italian boss looking like a farmhand in his woolly
bobble hat, City conceded after 23 minutes when Yarmelenko’s teasing
cross was knocked in by European veteran Andrei Shevchenko, lunging at the ball
ahead of a hesitant dive from Joe Hart on the rock hard pitch. After his patchy spell in London at Chelsea, the old master certainly looked back to his best in the familiar surroundings of where he had grown up as a wide-eyed ball boy in Oleh Blokhin's time.
|Kiev go two-up through Gusev|
Two minutes into the second half, Balotelli had not yet emerged from the tunnel to join his team mates, who were forced into the slightly unusual manoeuvre of playing on without him. This in itself was something of an innovation from the Italian, but what was to come next beat that into a cocked hat. Ambling down the touchline clasping his face and shaking his head, Balotelli arrived pitchside, followed by a gesticulating Roberto Mancini (nothing new there) and an entourage of sponge-wielding gofers, all staring intently at the apparently distressed player.
You could not, as the saying goes, have made it up. Mancini, spitting feathers and whirling his eyes, spluttered the near-iambic pentameter, “He had an allergy. I don’t know what. His face was swollen. I don’t know why,” Without adding his well worn catch phrase “ees normal”, it was as close to poetry as anyone in the City camp had managed all night.
Balotelli played on, looking even more bewildered than normal.
A late strike from Oleh Gusev, sneaking in ahead of a dithering Micah Richards, transformed the second leg prospects from sprightly to slightly lame.
10th March 2011 16,900
17th March 2011 27,816
"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist...” – Roberto Mancini
|Kolarov brings City back into the tie at Eastlands|
Having helped put a hole in the ship in the first leg, Balotelli sunk the whole shebang without trace in the return. Fans arriving early might have had a slight inkling that all was not well when he failed to get into a succession of bibs during the warm-up. On top of his problems in the first leg, the penny was beginning to drop that Mancini had recruited an authentic free-thinker.
City had just beaten Reading in the FA Cup quarter final to secure a first semi final (against United) since 1981 and entered the second leg with confidence rising and a tide of good form in the league that would eventually carry them to 3rd place and a first ever Champions League qualification.
With a six pm kick off restricting the number of fans who could get to the ground on time, City hit the ground running and were a goal up through Aleksandar Kolarov's well placed left footer, when disaster and Mario Balotelli struck again. The Italian had already scooped a shot over the bar from 3 yards out when the mists of frustration descended and he planted a boot into Goran Popov's chest. Referee Cüneyt Çakir, in charge at the Emirates for last night's Arsenal-Barcelona game, had little choice but to remove Balotelli from the fray, puncturing City's optimistic prancing with one dramatic flourish of his little red card.
With a man less, City were unable to bring further discomfort to the Dynamo backline, even with Tevez, Dzeko and Adam Johnson by now in tandem. A long trail through Europe that had started in Romania in August had come once more to an unsatisfactory conclusion. It would not quite be the last City saw of the Europa League, but it would be remembered for the high antics of one of City's most oddball players in recent generations.