How often have we heard ‘sage-like’ football ‘experts’ counsel ’Let’s see how he fancies playing at Wigan on a cold November night…’ when discussing a foreign player from warmer climes?
Well one of the most debated players of modern times took a bit of a shine to the freezing uninviting terrain at the DW Stadium to confound his legions of detractors.
Mario Barwuah Balotelli – without a goal Premier League goal to his name this season and supposedly with a one-way ticket to the continent this January – put in the proverbial shift to keep Manchester City on track to retain their PL title.
Even before his razor sharp reactions and clinical finishing put City ahead in the 69thminute, Mario had been putting in the yards for the Sky Blue cause.
He tracked back, he tackled he even absorbed some erratic decisions from referee Mark Halsey without a flicker of contempt, as he applied himself for the greater good.
It was just reward that it should be the much maligned Mario who ignited this latest City victory against the run of play.
Roberto Martinez’ unfancied team, devoid of big name stars and with all the consistency of a questionable cake mixture, rose to the occasion and put the champions on the back foot.
You never know from one week to the next how Wigan will perform, but it soon became apparent that this was to be one of their good days.
It’s the local rugby team who sport ‘Warriors’ in their name, but their football counterparts took up the metaphorical cudgels pinning down their illustrious visitors from 18 miles down the way.
Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic at the vanguard of the City defence, repelled attack after attack as the valiant ‘pie-eaters’ bared their teeth.
The front pairing of Jordi Gomez and Arouna Kone were menacing and Wigan’s flying wing backs Ronnie Stam and Jean Beausejour were getting more than a little change out of City’s South American full backs, Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon.
As resolute as City were, they were getting little help from the much vaunted, but thus far, underwhelming Javi Garcia. City fans were told their star signing from Benfica, had all the attributes of Nigel De Jong but a better passing range and carried a genuine goal threat.
Well he certainly does the latter, but only as a threat to his own team mates. He missed a trio of important tackles and was curiously ineffective as Wigan dominated the midfield.
City began the second half bristling with intent. David Silva’s rasping drive forced a save from Al Habsi in the Wigan goal, Gareth Barry had a credible penalty appeal turned away and Balotelli misdirected a header the wrong side of the post.
The miss of the night – to City’s relief – came from an unmarked Kone with a truly horrible header six yards out that sailed wide of Joe Hart’s goal.
Mancini underlined his acumen for game-changing substitutions withdrawing Garcia for the dynamic James Milner on the hour. Ten minutes later the misfiring and injured Sergio Aguero gave way to Aleksander Kolarov – a curious move indeed.
Within 60 seconds City had snatched the initiative. Al Habsi parried a low Gareth Barry drive, Balotelli latched onto the loose ball like a praying mantis only for the man from Oman to save again. He had no chance with Mario’s second strike.
In a display of camaraderie the Italian made beeline to a tracksuit-clad Carlos Tevez to celebrate on the touchline.
Wigan were reeling from a blow akin to that which felled City fanatic Ricky Hatton, in his ill-fated boxing comeback four nights earlier. Two minutes later and the admirable Milner put a piledriver past Al Habsi.
Silva, besieged by four Wigan defenders, squared the ball to Barry who laid the ball off to Milner who buried the shot from 25 yards. Goal hero Milner’s night ended on a low as a recurring hamstring injury forced him off, while Mancini dismissed Mario’s performance as ‘so-so’.
20 games undefeated, one point off the top of the table and yawning daylight between City and the chasing pack.
The statistics lied – City had 54% possession and 15 attempts on goal compared to Wigan’s half dozen. No way did it reflect the balance of play but it was Wigan who caught the cold and not the boy from Palermo.