FOX Soccer Exclusive
Manchester clubs reliant on enigmas
Manchester United takes on Manchester City early Sunday morning in the third round of the world's oldest soccer competition, England's FA Cup (live, 8 a.m. ET, FOX Soccer) It is a gripping match in what is otherwise a second-tier competition, a contest that will serve as an immediate litmus test for United’s title ambitions.
The Red Devils come in to the game after a 3-0 Premier League whacking midweek at the hands of seventh place Newcastle United, dropping them three points behind their neighbors in the league standings. Moreover, United are still smarting from the 6-1 thumping they took at City’s hands earlier this season and find themselves suddenly desperate to prove they can hang with the new boys.
Both teams are banged up and missing players. United have been hit hard by injuries while City are losing the influential Toure (midfielder Yaya, defender Kolo) brothers to the African Cup of Nations. But United will come in with an advantage: They will be able to field their most influential player, while City are likely to have to do without their X-Factor. United's Wayne Rooney will lead his embattled side, while Italian star Mario Balotelli is fighting to recover from an ankle injury and, as it stands, in unlikely to dress for City in this massive derby.
On a team loaded with attacking talent, it is young Balotelli who has emerged as City’s touchstone. Sergio Aguero is more reliable, and David Silva is the consensus best provider in the league - but it is Balotelli’s bloody-mindedness that gives City a wildly unpredictable punch.
Oddly enough, Balotelli has become what United’s Wayne Rooney used to be: heroic, talismanic — and catnip to Britain’s ravenous tabloids. To be sure, Balotelli’s antics have cost him dearly in the past. He was a chronic under-performer with Inter Milan and was let go to City more out of sheer frustration than good business. He was an expensive reclamation project for Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini that nearly came off the rails only six months ago.
Frequently portrayed as a hulking, sulking man-child, Balotelli is a far more complex character than his off-field antics might indicate. Those antics include: setting fire to his house by setting off fireworks in his bathroom; fighting in training; racking up a stunning amount of traffic tickets and crashing his car; and frequently breaking curfew before games to enjoy a night out with his friends. (The only odd thing about that is that, unlike many other athletes in England, alcohol never seems to be involved.)
These missteps have frustrated his manager and overshadowed the other things Balotelli has done off the field. Less well known is Balotelli’s penchant for visiting sick children in the hospital – a legacy of his own childhood - and his remarkable, almost foolish, generosity. Just two weeks ago Balotelli was rumored to be walking the streets of Manchester in a Santa suit while handing out cash to the city's poor.
It wasn’t always this way. Balotelli has had a difficult career both in England and his native Italy, never seeming wholly comfortable with the attention that comes with his talent. The reasons are understandable: Balotelli was an abandoned child, raised by foster parents, and has had to overcome persistent feelings of being an outsider everywhere he has gone.
As a child, Balotelli suffered serious health problems, leading his biological parents, Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, to put him up for adoption. He has subsequently implied that they abused him as a child and has not spoken to them since. (He was further infuriated when they re-emerged from a long absence by giving paid interviews to the press, telling English tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail his parents were “glory hunters.”)
But Balotelli also struggled in northern Italy with his foster parents. He was an outsider in Brescia, a very visible black man in an overwhelmingly white community. At 6’2”, Balotelli had nowhere to hide from the racist taunts that formed an every day backdrop — and still rain down on him when he suits up for the Italian national team. His self-protection was an aloofness that many have been taken as arrogance — but people who know him say that masks a kind yet very lonely young man.
That remove has continued in Manchester, a city where he continues to find himself as much of an outsider. For much of his tenure, he has walled himself up in his house playing video games. He still sticks closely to a small, core group of friends.
Yet his foibles also led to what now seems a seminal moment in his young career. In October, just after the fireworks incident, Balotelli scored against United to lead City in that rout. He lifted up his shirt to reveal a message: “Why Always Me?” Suddenly, the angry young man had a sense of humor. He has also begun to produce for City, scoring 11 goals across all competitions this season. The once-brutal daily coverage of him has abated.
Balotelli’s is a story that Rooney knows well. United's star was that wunderkind, once the youngest player ever to suit up for England, and a man who signed for Everton at just nine years old. Rooney has been around for so long — a full 10 years at the top level — that it’s sometimes difficult to wrap your head around the fact that he is just 26. He’s already appeared in two World Cups and is expected to suit up in his third European Championship this summer.
Like Balotelli, Rooney has been dogged by off-field incidents and continuing discipline problems. Rooney will miss two games at the European Championships after he inexplicably, brutally tackled Montenegrin defender Miodrag Dzudovic in a meaningless group game. Sir Alex Ferguson sat him for a game after defying a Boxing Day curfew. Many fans also haven’t forgotten his threats to leave the club last year after a row with his manager.
Yet Rooney remains the focal point of United’s attack. While the bulldog of a forward has increasingly drifted back into a playmaker role, he remains the side’s leading scorer. In fact, Rooney has had to pick up the slack all season long as several key regulars have failed to catch fire in front of the net. Last year’s revelation, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is deep in a sophomore slump. Dimitar Berbatov is both unloved and not scoring.
What Rooney has been unable to do is lift United on his shoulders, as he has before. With no clear replacement identified for the seemingly irreplaceable Paul Scholes, United look a grimmer team than in years past. They still have an ability to grind out wins, but they lack the flair and muscle to overpower truly gifted opponents.
City, despite Mancini’s recent laments, still have more talent than virtually every other team in the league, and few across town will be crying if they only (only!) have 17 players to call upon for Sunday’s match. They will survive without Balotelli for a game or two. But United’s reliance on Rooney is far more troubling — without him in the lineup they are simply average. That’s the clearest sign of how much change this city has seen.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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