Mario Balotelli came off the bench to score a vital goal on his debut as Manchester City beat Timisoara 1-0 in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier at the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium in Romania.
The 20-year-old Italian calmly converted Emmanuel Adebayor‘s low cross in the 72nd minute, after a frustrating, tepid hour of football in the stifling Romanian humidity.
Roberto Mancini made three changes to his side after City’s disappointing goalless draw against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League on Saturday, bringing Adebayor, Pablo Zabaleta and Joleon Lescott back into the starting XI.
City started relatively brightly, controlling possession and passing patiently around the middle of the pitch.
However, the big-spending Premier League side were lucky not to concede a penalty kick with just 14 minutes played, when Zabaleta appeared to make contact with the lively Alexandru Curtean inside the penalty area.
German referee Florian Meyer waved play on, sparing City’s blushes against the Romanian minnows.
Timisoara’s Cosmin Contra came closest to putting the hosts in front 20 minutes later, with City failing to deal with a high ball in to the penalty area.
Balotelli’s introduction on 57 minutes added a much-needed vibrancy to City’s attack, replacing the sluggish Gareth Barry and occupying an advanced position on the left.
The youngster should have scored his first City goal just 10 minutes later slamming a left-foot shot into the side netting after Adebayor’s header across the face of Costel Pantilimon’s goal.
The two combined again to devastating effect in the 72nd minute, with the Togolese striker again providing a perfect ball across the face of goal.
Adebayor’s low cross found the rapidly advancing Balotelli, whose cool finish into the roof of the net silenced the bubbling cauldron of noise in the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium.
The £24 million signing from Internazionale wheeled off in celebration, but immediately exhibited the darker side of his game just two minutes later, entering the referee’s book after a nose-to-nose confrontation with Timisoara captain Dan Alexa.
City’s slender lead was never threatened in the final quarter of an hour, with their combative hosts particularly disappointing in attack.
The second leg takes place at the City of Manchester Stadium next Thursday.
John Stead / Eurosport