x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Mario Balotelli keeps his cool

The substitute rescues a point for Roberto Mancini's men, who were completely outplayed by Borussia Dortmund at Etihad Stadium, writes Richard Jolly.

Mario Balotelli gestures toward Roman Weidenfeller, the Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper, after scoring from the penalty spot. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
Mario Balotelli gestures toward Roman Weidenfeller, the Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper, after scoring from the penalty spot. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

MANCHESTER // When, on Tuesday, Roberto Mancini described Borussia Dortmund as one of Europe's top teams, it seemed a generous appraisal of a side that struggled in last year's Champions League. Last night the Bundesliga title holders fully justified their lofty billing while Manchester City, the English champions, did rather less to suggest they belong in that bracket.

They were doubly fortunate to take a point; partly because of the dubious penalty awarded when the ball struck Neven Subotic's hand, converted by a typically nerveless Mario Balotelli, but largely because, on the balance of the game and the numbers of chances created, Dortmund were much the superior side.

Despite the substitute's expertise from 12 yards, goalkeeper Joe Hart was the greater reason why City escaped defeat. Aided by his woodwork, he kept the score line down before Balotelli's 90th-minute equaliser.

Yet while Dortmund carved their hosts apart time and again, they were aided by one of the errors that pockmarked the City performance. The substitute Jack Rodwell under-hit a pass that was aimed for Matija Nastasic. Marco Reus anticipated and intercepted, bursting through the City defence to beat Hart. As he had done to numerous previous shots, the goalkeeper got a hand to it. This time, however, the ball spun into the net.

It was a goal that had been coming from the opening minutes. Dortmund had a blend of pace and technique to render them a menace on the counter-attack, plus an abundance of ability in the final third.

Their most vaunted talent was twice inches from opening the scoring, with both Hart and the Etihad Stadium woodwork, combining to keep the score at 0-0. The Englishman excelled in City's Champions League opener against Real Madrid and continued where he left off at the Bernabeu, tipping a Mario Gotze shot on to the far post and then, after an improvised back-heel flick from Jakub Blaszczykowski, seeing his rising drive pushed on to the bar.

His brilliance was a recurring theme; Gotze's curler was kept out, Ilkay Gundogan denied twice. The sheer volume of saves, however, was a sign that, like his defence, he was left far too exposed. As in Madrid, Mancini switched shape mid-game in a bid to find a solution.

There was none and, for much of the second half, City lost their attacking rhythm. Their threat came from last season's leading provider and scorer of goals respectively. Looking sharp, Sergio Aguero accelerated on to David Silva's deft clip over the Dortmund defence. Roman Weidenfeller raced from his goal to block the Argentine's shot with his legs. Then the Spaniard guided a pass into the striker's path and, once more, Weidenfeller stopped the resulting effort.

Creator extraordinaire he may be, but Silva's finishing left something to be desired. When picked out by Pablo Zabaleta and granted an open goal, the playmaker contrived to volley over the bar.

Balotelli eventually found the target to register City's first point of the Champions League but, three adrift of Dortmund and five behind group leaders Madrid, qualification already looks difficult.

This has been branded the Group of Death for a reason and City may yet be among its victims.


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