Mario Balotelli fired Manchester City into the knockout phase of the Europa League on a night that of fered another fascinating insight into the enigmatic Italian.
Two goals, a shameless piece of diving and a wonderful example of a 20-year-old who at times seems to think he is a law unto himself, Balotelli is certainly good box office. No wonder AC Milan were yesterday talking about taking him back to Italy sooner rather than later.
Manchester City's forgotten stars: Highest-paid second team in history look to shine in Europe Enlarge Shot at the big time: Mario Balotelli, the subject of transfer speculation with AC Milan, scores inside the first 20 minutes against Salzburg
MATCH FACTS MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2): Given 6; Boateng 7, K Toure 6 (Richards 82min), Lescott 6, Zabaleta 7; Wright-Phillips 6, Milner 7, Vieira 6, A Johnson 7; Balotelli 8 (Adebayor 71, 6), Jo 6.
Subs not used: Hart, Kolarov, Barry, Silva, De Jong.
RED BULL SALZBURG (4-1-4-1): Tremmel 6; Schiemer 5, Sekagya 6, Afolabi 6, Hinteregger 5 (Svento 46, 6); Mendes da Silva 5 (Augustinussen 67, 6); Jantscher 5, Leitgeb 6, Cziommer 5 (Alan 55, 6), Hierlander 7; Boghossian 5.
Subs not used: Walke, Zarate, Mahop, Offenbacher.
Booked: Afolabi, Boghossian, Sekagya.
Man of the match: Mario Balotelli.
Referee: Libor Kovarik (Czech Rep) 6.
In the end it was allstraightforward for a City side who needed to win and hope Juventuscould not do the same away to Lech Poznan to avoid the prospect of aplace in the last 32 hingeing on a tough trip to Turin in a fortnight.
Juve could only draw in Poland andCity were good value for their victory as Balotelli bagged his fifthgoal in six games on his first home start since a £23million move fromInter Milan in the summer.Adam Johnson added an outstanding third.
The snow and sub-zero temperaturesthat greeted Salzburg may have been familiar to the Austrian side, butthey seemed unprepared for the onslaught they faced from RobertoMancini's team last night. Balotelli should have scored at least oncebefore he gave City a deserved lead in the 18th minute.
Jo played the ball out wide to PabloZabaleta, whose cross allowed Balotelli to stretch his left leg infront of Martin Hinteregger and volley past goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel.
The only surprise was that thesecond goal did not arrive until the 65th minute. Johnson fed the ballto Patrick Vieira, who showed great vision to drag it back to the farpost, where Balotelli tapped in from close range. However, he appearedto hurt his groin in the process and was replaced by Emmanuel Adebayor.
Close call: James Milner fires shot just past the post
Balotelli had already shown the lessimpressive side of his game by then. He has just completed athree-match domestic ban following his sending-off for a petulant kickat West Bromwich Albion's Youssouf Mulumbu last month, and he wasfortunate to escape punishment from referee Libor Kovarik beforehalf-time when he was guilty of a blatant dive, tumbling in the penaltybox under little contact from Franz Schiemer, even though he was wellplaced to go on and score again.
It is something Balotelli needs toeradicate but he remains unpredictable and a wonderful moment thatfollowed said everything about this precocious youngster.
The second half had already startedwhen he strolled nonchalantly out of the tunnel, adjusting his snoodand putting on his gloves. The fourth official tried to stop him goingon to the pitch at first, then signalled frantically to the refereewithout success. Still, Balotelli will have to do a little better if hewants to impress Mancini.
Cool finish: Mario Balotelli scores his second goal
'I know Mario well and I know whathe can do, but I think he can play better than he did tonight,' saidthe City boss. 'He's always like this because for him it is normal toscore.'
Johnson added a third 12 minutesfrom time, cutting inside from the left and beating three Salzburgdefenders before curling an exquisite shot inside the far post. Ithappened moments after the England winger had left the pitch for atoilet break that clearly did him the world of good. Mancini added: 'InItaly we say it's better in the bathroom than on the pitch!'
Wrapped up: Adam Johnson celebrates scoring the third goal with James Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips
Balotelli's display came on the daythat he was once again linked with Milan. He has done little to quelltalk of a possible return to Italy with his boyhood club and saidrecently he was committed to City 'for sure until June' - a curiousstatement considering he signed a five-year deal in the summer.
Milan chief Adriano Galliani saidyesterday: 'I don't think Manchester City will sell as Mario has afive-year contract with them, but if they did, we'd be there.'
There was also growing speculationin Spain that Real Madrid are ready to make a move for Adebayor afterdiscovering that Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain needs surgery on aherniated disc.
But the City fans who celebrated inthe snow last night and sang songs in jest about Salzburg's Brazilianstriker Alan are hardly going to miss him when they have someone likeBalotelli.
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