Man City missed Yaya more than Mario at QPR, Chelsea have no plan B after Benitez, Norwich eye Celtic & Leeds forwards

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “We are so sad because Mario was an important player for us. With Mario we won the Premier League and the FA Cup in two years. It was difficult because he could be important in the next 14 games. But it’s important for Mario to go back to Italy. I think he can improve and I’m happy he will become one of the best players in the world. For me, Mario was like another one of my children. You can be upset with him but afterwards he’s a lovely lad. I invest a lot of time with all players. With Mario, maybe more. It was emotional when we said goodbye. When I say that I love Mario, and all his team-mates love him, it’s true.” – Roberto Mancini.

Runner-up: “Cesar was excellent – he’s world class. He’s won everything and he’s an amazing goalkeeper. It’s a bonus point, a great point. City rip teams to pieces, home and away. It’s not the end of the title race but it was a great result for Fergie. As long as we get off the bottom, I really couldn’t care.” – Harry Redknapp.

Arrivederci Mario

Mario Balotelli exit planned by Manchester City for a fortnight (Daniel Taylor, Guardian) Mancini’s patience finally snapped because of the events leading to the late and dangerous challenge on Scott Sinclair that led to the embarrassing series of photographs showing City’s manager grappling with Balotelli at the club’s training ground on 3 January.

Balotelli’s been a total nightmare raps Royle (Sun) Former Manchester City boss Joe Royle insists Mario Balotelli will be no great loss — as he has been a ‘nightmare’… Royle, also a former City player, rapped: “I will only remember Balotelli as a great penalty taker.”

Bored, irrational and unmanageable: Why Mancini’s ‘Balotelli Project’ at Man City was always doomed to failure (Ian Ladyman, Mail) Sadly, Balotelli’s life in Manchester was full of more unhappiness, loneliness and irrationality than reached the TV screens or the pages of the newspapers. City’s efforts to integrate him could not have been more comprehensive or indeed more futile. He leaves simply as one troubled young sportsman who just could not be helped.

QPR – Man City 0

Manchester City miss Yaya Touré more than Mario Balotelli against QPR (Barney Ronay, Guardian) For City this was a night of much possession, some fine interplay and a slight lack of incision that comes at a most inopportune time. Two points dropped here represents a stilling of the momentum that had kept Manchester United’s lead at the top of the Premier League to five points. Separately this is a blank that coincides – yes always him: even now – with the departure of a £17m striker. City’s attacks did lack a telling variation, although the absent ingredient was not Mario Balotelli but Yaya Touré, missed for the first time since his departure for South Africa. Touré’s direct running would have provided an ideal attacking counterpoint to the embroidery of City’s midfield as Rangers dropped deep and the pitch grew heavier.

Flawless QPR stopper defies Mancini’s champions… before hijacking Nelsen’s guard of honour after stellar performance (Neil Ashton, Mail) Cesar made a string of world-class saves to deny Manchester City three points at Loftus Road on Tuesday night. The Brazilian goalkeeper was so happy with his performance that he milked the crowd at the final whistle and then made his way off the pitch, where he found the rest of his team had formed a guard of honour. Cesar, completely unaware that it was actually for the leaving Ryan Nelsen, thought it was for him and began to walk down it before a member of QPR’s backroom staff pushed him to the side.

Júlio César saves the day as Queens Park Rangers hold Manchester City (Guardian) Roberto Mancini offered a shrug on the final whistle and only disappointment mumbled through a rueful smile post-match but, on the night the champions sanctioned the sale of Mario Balotelli to Milan, there was something troubling that Manchester City could muster only a goalless draw against the Premier League’s bottom team. An opportunity to cut the gap to Manchester United has been passed up. The title defence feels rather fraught once again.

Crisis Villa

Newcastle United’s French legion pile further pain on Aston Villa (Daniel Taylor, Guardian) These are grim times for Aston Villa that must leave their supporters wondering whether their season could get any worse. Unfortunately for them, the answer is plainly yes. In the space of a week they have lost to Bradford City of League Two, Millwall of the Championship and now a Newcastle United side that had not won an away fixture all season. This result leaves them deep in the relegation quagmire and sinking fast.

Aston Villa badly wounded by Newcastle’s foreign legion (Stuart James, Guardian) It was another chastening night for the Midlands club, whose hopes of avoiding relegation look like resting with the same players who got them into this mess.

Lamb stank (Graeme Bryce, Sun) Villa have now taken just two points from their last 21 and embarrassingly have been booted out of both cup competitions by lower league sides. Lambert is now 2-1 ON to become the next Premier League boss to be sacked.

Toon Slam Lamb (Star) Newcastle piled the pressure on under-fire Villa boss Paul Lambert with their first away win of the season.

Chelsea: Abramovich’s Demands, Rafa Staying

Abramovich gives up on cups and orders Benitez to deliver top-four finish (Neil Ashton, Mail) Roman Abramovich has written off Chelsea’s chances of winning silverware this season and told Rafa Benitez to finish in the top four. Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo met with Benitez at the club’s training ground on Tuesday morning and passed on the message from their billionaire benefactor.

Benitez may not be doing a good job… but he does not deserve the vile abuse he is getting from the Chelsea fans (Neil Ashton, Mail) There is a video doing the rounds on YouTube from Chelsea’s visit to Griffin Park on Sunday, and it does not make comfortable viewing for Rafa Benitez. It shows him walking off at half time to a barrage of abuse from his own fans. No manager deserves this. Whatever the feelings of Chelsea supporters towards Benitez, dishing this sort of stuff out is disrespectful. He’s a top manager trying to do his job – admittedly not very well – but give him a break.

Rafa Benitez to stay as there is no Plan B (David Woods, Star) Rafa Benitez will escape the sack for now – because there is no-one available to replace him… That leaves Benitez having to see out the remainder of the season as a dead man walking, with his fate sealed in the summer.

Lewis Holtby

Lewis Holtby could prove to be Tottenham’s deal of the century (David Hytner, Guardian) Tottenham are getting a 22-year-old Germany international, who was central to the offensive ambitions of one of the Bundesliga’s leading clubs and had been primed to feature in the Champions League knockout phase; Schalke fancy their chances against Galatasaray in the last 16. Villas-Boas has likened him to Rafael van der Vaart, the No10 he sold to Hamburg last August. And just to repeat: the fee is £1.5m. On a purely business level, Levy would have no shortage of takers at a far higher sell-on price, even if things did not work out. It is remarkable that one of Germany’s brightest young talents has been allowed to run down his contract yet there does not seem to be any sense of recrimination.

Transfer Window Analysis

After a decade of panic and greed, shut this broken window for good (Martin Samuel, Mail) Has the transfer window improved English football? No. Has it increased loyalty? No. Has it made clubs more stable and less extravagant? No. Has it made the game financially healthier? No. Has it made football fairer? No. Has it seen off predatory agents in search of a quick buck? Has it hell as like.

Transfer Apocalypse: Two Days To Go

Bye-bye Mario! Buy-buy Villa! City are in for Barca’s David to replace Balotelli (Mirror) Manchester City have finally offloaded maverick striker Mario Balotelli – and set their sights on David Villa to replace him… City are set to make a last-ditch attempt to sign Barcelona’s £15m-rated forward Villa, after Arsenal were forced to give up their pursuit of him.

Wenger to make one final swoop for Villa after crunch transfer talks with Arsenal chief Gazidis (Sami Mokbel, Mail) The Gunners will make a final offer to Barca chiefs in the next 24 hours in a bid to bring him to the Emirates, with Villa understood to be keen to join the Gunners. However, Villa is the only realistic new signing going into the final 48 hours of the transfer window.

Blues hit the Jack pot (Sun) Chelsea have been granted permission to discuss personal terms with Jack Butland. Birmingham’s England goalkeeper, 19, is wanted by the Blues as a long-term successor to Petr Cech, who will miss tonight’s trip to Reading with a calf injury… [Butland’s] agent Gary Mellor confirmed to SunSport last night that Chelsea have had a bid of around £3.5million accepted.

Butland snubs Chelsea switch after Birmingham accept £3m offer for England stopper (Mail) Birmingham goalkeeper Jack Butland has rejected the chance to join Chelsea. The England international was given permission to talk to the European champions yesterday ahead of a projected £3million move but, while flattered by their interest, Butland has opted to stay at St Andrews

Wenger’s Becks tribute (Sun) Beckham has offers from QPR, West Ham and Monaco, plus clubs from China, Brazil and South Africa. But the former Manchester United and Real Madrid ace is leaning towards a move to Paris Saint-Germain or AC Milan.

Canaries are cock-a-Hoop (Sun) Norwich are today hoping to seal the signing of Celtic’s £8million-rated striker Gary Hooper AND Leeds hitman Luciano Becchio. The struggling Canaries are hopeful of pulling off the signing of two forwards while Steve Morison could go the other way to Leeds.

Stoke considering Crouch sale as QPR stump up £5m plus Mackie in bid to land striker (Mail) Stoke are ready to accept £5million plus Jamie Mackie from Queens Park Rangers for striker Peter Crouch… Stoke agreed a £2.5m deal for FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, 22, and are looking at other options including a possible loan for Galatasaray’s Johan Elmander. Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak is also poised to sign for £2.5m.

Spurs set to make last-ditch £15m bid for Damiao but Lennon is cool on Hooper move (Mail) Tottenham will attempt to prise Leandro Damiao from Internacional with a £15m offer after the Brazilian club moved for another striker Luan from Palmeiras.

Emanuelson checks into the Cottage for reunion with Fulham boss Jol (Mail) Fulham are in talks to sign AC Milan midfielder Urby Emanuelson on loan. The 26-year-old Dutch international can play left-back, midfield and as a winger.

The Unlucky Punter

Ref blows £500k bet: Disallowed goal at final whistle costs unlucky punter a fortune (Mirror) A gambler lost out on a £500,000 football jackpot by a second when the ref blew for full-time just as a last-minute goal was going in. The unlucky mystery punter staked £3 on a string of FA Cup upsets at the weekend. Three results panned out as he predicted but he watched in horror as ref Kevin Friend ruled out the goal he needed in Leeds’ fourth round clash with Spurs. Ladbrokes, his local bookies, said it would have been “the greatest outside wager of all time” had the whistle blown a second later. The Lucky 15 combination bet meant the tipster could still console himself with a nice but less ­spectacular £17,000 win.