MANCHESTER: Roberto Mancini was again forced to answer questions about the erratic behaviour of his forward Mario Balotelli as Manchester City surrendered the initiative in the title race with a dramatic 3-3 draw with Sunderland.
The result – the first time a team has taken a league point at Eastlands in 14 months – leaves Mancini's team two points behind leaders Manchester United who play their game in hand at Blackburn on Monday.
Balotelli scored twice, the first a disputed penalty and the second in the 85th minute, before Aleksandar Kolarov salvaged a point with the equaliser four minutes from time on Saturday.
But Balotelli attracted far much than just his goals as he argued with officials, opponents and even had a furious confrontation with team-mate Kolarov as they disputed who should take a free-kick.
With City – now with just one win from their last four league matches – already showing signs of cracking under the pressure of fighting United for the title, the last thing Mancini needs is more distractions from Balotelli.
“I only had Carlos Tevez on the bench but I thought about subbing Mario after five minutes,” Mancini said.
“He didn't play well. In a game like this, your strikers need to do something different, not just play for the last two or three minutes - but in the end he scored two goals.
“He and Edin Dezko should be scoring two or three goals in a game like this.
“They know that at the free-kick it should be Aleksandar and Mario on the ball, after that they decide who shoots. This can happen at times like this but this is the last time.”
Mancini's problems in attack are not aided by the bizarre injury currently suffered by Argentine forward Sergio Aguero, absent from the game after suffering an allergic reaction to a spray put on his ankle during the week.
“If we had had Aguero, we would have won today, 100 per cent,” said Mancini who had refused to confirm the nature of Aguero's injury in the build-up to the game.
“I hope we can have him back for the next game.
“It was a spray (that caused the injury) but it was not his fault. It is finished, we can do nothing.”
The game marked the sixth match in succession in which City had conceded a goal first and Mancini's men are clearly struggling to match United's consistency.
Mancini has proven himself willing to engage in “mind games” with his rival Sir Alex Ferguson and he attempted to do so again as he looked ahead to United's visit to Blackburn.
“I think after this maybe (City's) confidence will go down, but only for this afternoon,” he added.
“United will probably draw on Monday, I don't know why but they will, then we are only three points behind.
“It is hard but after Monday, we have another seven games. Like we have, we need United to make some mistakes in those last games. Maybe United will have difficult moments.
“It's important we're there. We have the derby and it's important before then we are within a point or two.”
Sunderland led through Sebastian Larsson and Nicolas Bendtner's header restored their lead following Balotelli's penalty, harshly awarded for a trip on Dzeko by Craig Gardner.
Larsson made it 3-1 early in the second half, but manager Martin O'Neill felt Sunderland paid the price for the controversial spot-kick and some late tiredness.
O'Neill said: “Initially I thought the referee was going to book their player for diving, but I should have known better. I can understand the angry reaction of my players.
“But in the end it was a combination of Man City fighting back and us getting a little bit tired.”