Manchester City suffered an all-too-familiar result away to Stoke City on the weekend—finishing with a 1-1 draw and dropping valuable points in their chase for the English Premier League title this season.
Known as one of the tougher places to travel in the league, Stoke were perhaps a little fortunate to walk away with a point given Peter Crouch's double handball goal went unnoticed by the officials and that City could not land the killer blow throughout the second half.
The truth was that Roberto Mancini's men were far better than a 1-1 draw suggests but away from the Etihad, they simply couldn't get the job done and couldn't walk away with all three points and for that, they can only blame themselves.
Looking back, the match provided plenty of talking points and areas to be discussed, and looking forward, it provided many questions and interesting thoughts for the season ahead. Let's take a look at some of those questions now—some points to ponder, if you like, from City's draw with the Potters.
What should Roberto Mancini do with Mario Balotelli?
Earlier in the year, I wrote quite a harsh piece on Mario Balotelli after watching him struggle against Liverpool at Anfield—stating that Roberto Mancini simply shouldn't play the striker if he isn't going to step up and fill the void left by Sergio Aguero due to his injury.
Upon reflection, I felt that I was perhaps a little harsh on the Italian international, who had recently proved to the world at the 2012 European Championships that he still had the attacking dominance and skill that led him to Manchester in the first place.
After watching the Stoke game, I'm back to where I was all along, with the belief that Balotelli simply isn't a top-class striker and isn't going to become the top striker that City need any time in the near future.
First of all, no top striker is going to be effective when they're rolling around on the ground, head in hands, every couple of minutes in the match. I'm not sure what the actual count was—you'd have to watch the game tape—but Super Mario was on the ground a good six or seven times in the match.
But more than that, he simply doesn't generate the offensive presence that City need. His defensive contributions are excellent—that cannot be disputed—but that isn't what the Citizens need from their striker: They need goals and they need attacking opportunities to be created and finished.
For mine, Mario did neither.
The Italian had just 46 touches on Saturday—the fewest of all outfield players that played 90 minutes—and completed his passes at just 68 percent completion rate, the fewest again of any City player that played that match.
He generated no attacking chances for his team-mates (referred to as key passes by WhoScored.com) and could only muster one shot on target for the entire match.
I've said it before and I'll say it again here, it seems that Balotelli does not have the attacking presence and involvement required to be a telling factor in City's attack this season. He certainly isn't going to earn a starting position once Aguero is healthy, that's for sure.
Is City's away form going to cost them again this season?
It's no secret that teams perform better at home than they do away from home—that fact has been evident for as long as sports have been played—but in some cases, the home ground advantage is made more obvious than in others.
For Manchester City, they play very well when at the Etihad Stadium, and they play very poorly away from it. That's not to say that they can't win big on the road—City fans will quickly remember their 6-1 drubbing of Manchester United at Old Trafford—but overall, they are simply a poor road team.
Last year, City failed to win half of their away matches and only failed to win one of their home matches. They scored significantly less goals and almost squandered the English Premier League title with poor road performances against Swansea City, Arsenal and, you guessed it, Stoke City throughout March and April.
This year, City have had two wins and two draws through their opening four matches and both draws have come away from home. It's early days I know, but their away form is beginning to become more than just a coincidence—it's starting to become a problem that they must soon fix before it's too late.
Whether or not Manchester City can win away from the Etihad this season will be a telling factor in the race for the Premier League title.
The next month provides little respite for Manchester City
In my opinion, the next six weeks will tell us a great deal about whether or not Manchester City are to be considered a genuine threat throughout England and Europe this season.
It might seem a tad premature to be making bold declarations like that, but the truth is that the Citizens have a huge few weeks of football ahead of them, and we'll be able to tell whether this team is the real deal this year or not.
They kick off their Champions League matches with an away match to a desperate Real Madrid side on Tuesday and then follow that up with a home fixture to Arsenal, who are on fire after putting six goals past Southampton this weekend.
The Citizens will also play against German champions Borussia Dortmund and Dutch champions Ajax throughout October, as well as difficult Premier League matches against Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Swansea City.
Physically their bodies will cope, but mentally, they cannot afford a moment's rest and cannot relax throughout this very difficult six-week period, for it could spell the difference between glory and falling short in both the UEFA Champions League and the English Premier League.
I think we'll see why City are a genuine contender in both competitions over the next six weeks, for when the going gets tough, they tough get going. I expect City to "get going" in a big way over the next month or so.
What are you thinking following the draw with Stoke City on the weekend?
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