A little over two minutes before the moment that will forever define his career, Manchester City hero Sergio Aguero showed sharpness in the Queens Park Rangers goalmouth that would not have been out of place at Old Trafford.

Old Trafford cricket ground that is, just down the road from City's bitter rivals and their home of the same name.

As Edin Dzeko's equaliser from David Silva's right-wing corner bounced back off the netting, Aguero pounced, snaffling it like a quicksilver short-leg fielder and darting back to the centre circle for City's final tilt at the improbable.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the striker's movement after Joey Barton brazenly tried to dead leg him – one of many surreal and key incidents that fed into a frenzied and famous race against the clock on May 13, 2012.

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The whole story is now as well-worn as any in football history.

On the cusp of a first top-flight title for 44 years, Robert Mancini's Manchester City faced relegation-threatened QPR on the final day of the season. In their previous 18 Premier League home matches that season, they had won 17 and drawn the other – the most recent of those a 1-0 win over United that tipped a titanic Mancunian tussle back towards the blue side of town.

City simply needed to match United's result at Sunderland and led 1-0 at the interval thanks to Pablo Zabaleta, only for second-half goals from Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie to turn the contest on its head.

It remained 2-1 heading into stoppage time despite QPR operating with 10 men. City youth product Barton was dismissed for tussling with Carlos Tevez and responded to Mike Dean's red card by thumping his knee into Aguero's thigh before aiming a headbutt at Vincent Kompany. Fireworks enthusiast Mario Balotelli poured some petrol on this particular bonfire by confronting the combustible Scouser as he stomped towards the tunnel.

Aside from that significant blemish, QPR's discipline was otherwise impeccable. Despite ceding 81.3 possession overall and 84.1 per cent during the second half, they only made seven fouls. Stoppages were infrequent as City thrashed and flailed with increasing desperation and diminishing artistry around the opposition penalty area.

Without Barton's meltdown, there is little chance five minutes of stoppage time - or the three minutes and 20 seconds they ultimately required - would have been signalled. It was time City desperately needed and time they could put to good use with their top scorer's fast-twitch fibres bristling.

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Barton was not the only QPR man with City connections. His team-mates Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha had also graduated through Jim Cassell's Platt Lane youth system, while Rangers boss Mark Hughes was Mancini's immediate predecessor, having been axed shortly before Christmas in 2009.

Hughes, of course, also played for United with distinction across two spells, and those loyalties struck a chord as news came through Bolton Wanderers had failed to beat Stoke City, meaning the Londoners were safe irrespective of the outcome at the Etihad Stadium.

"[City] got back on level terms and I always remember, at that point, I knew we were safe because the other result came in," he told the Coaches Voice in 2020.

"I'm thinking, 'I wouldn't mind United winning, if I'm honest'. It's 2-2 and Jay Bothroyd looked over, asking what we wanted them to do [from the restart]. The players understood the [Bolton] game was over and we'd stayed up. We just said kick it as far as you can, right in the corner and the game's over."

Hughes' recollections from that point credit City with a poise they absolutely lacked. Rarely can a team have scored twice in this space of two minutes and – save for a crucial few seconds – played so shambolically.

Bothroyd's hoof found touch and scampering Joe Hart ran out of his goal to take the throw-in. The England goalkeeper almost missed the pitch.

Gael Clichy carried the ball down the flank, only for his attempted cross to turn into a block tackle with Mackie. Samir Nasri's aimless, floated effort that followed did little more than give Clint Hill a ninth successful clearance of the afternoon.

Nasri then excelled himself by shepherding the ball out for a QPR throw-in. Just 40 seconds before that explosion of ecstasy there was fury and anguish in the stands. Aguero watched it all from roughly the QPR penalty spot. Apparently he'd seen quite enough.

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Aguero honed his lethal skills playing against bigger boys in Buenos Aires on the neighbourhood potrero – the hard gravel and mud neighbourhood pitches that football purists in Argentina bemoan are a diminishing presence.

"When you play you have to think fast. Who to take on, who not," Aguero said when recalling those days in a 2018 documentary for City's in-house television channel. "You know who is going to play dirty, who isn't.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

Reflecting further in the 2019 book 'Pep's City' by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, he further explained the proving ground that readied him for Barton and others.

"Getting kicked black and blue was all part of the game," he said. "You held on to the ball any way you could.

"Running with the ball was a whole different concept for us. I'd be up against big, tough boys and I was always the smallest. But I learned how to survive."

Aguero remembered those matches were played for the prize of a peso, which would garner one of his favourite sweet treats, an alfajor or dulce de leche.

As United's players took in full-time and three points at the Stadium of Light, and Nigel de Jong brought the ball forward in Manchester to the soundtrack of QPR celebrations – their fans aware of Bolton's fate – the stakes were somewhat higher.

Vacating his spot in a penalty area already crowded by substitutes Dzeko and Balotelli, along with a marauding Kompany, Aguero took possession from De Jong 30 yards from goal.

He faced up to a compact QPR back four, with the visitors' four midfielders all in his immediate vicinity.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

A shuffling touch to his left engineered space outside Shaun Derry, but Aguero needed help. Ideally from someone reliable, given the complete lack of any margin for error.

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Balotelli was on the pitch in a Manchester City shirt for the first time in over a month.

Mancini had not trusted his wayward protege since a brainless red card in a 1-0 Easter Sunday defeat at Arsenal left City eight points behind United with six games to play. Tevez, who had spent the bulk of the campaign AWOL playing golf in Argentina, represented a far more dependable option.

But with nowhere left to turn, he dared and prayed for Mario to be super. However briefly.

Introduced in the 76th minute, Balotelli gave the impression he had not just been banished from Premier League arenas, but football pitches altogether since his previous game.

The Italy striker managed to run through seven attempts – two on target, five blocked – during a frenzied cameo. It was probably as well Aguero found him with his back to goal, inside the D and grappling with Anton Ferdinand.

"I tried to control the ball and I had a contact from the defender and the ball went a little bit far from my foot," Balotelli told City TV five years on. "I thought in that half second there is maybe going to be a little bit of space for Sergio."

If Balotelli had stayed upright, the likelihood is QPR would have seen through their final piece of dogged tireless defending. In being forced on to his backside for the only assist of his Premier League career, he created opportunity and chaos.

Facing his own goal, Derry had to hurdle a prone Balotelli, while Wright-Phillips' route back to defend was also compromised. With his centre-back partner grounded, Hill held his position square on, while Kompany's haring towards the six-yard box dragged left-back Taye Taiwo with him.

A pocket of space opened up. A spot of turf Balotelli was able to locate from his sedentary position. As limbs flailed around him and a tight defence scattered, Aguero was thinking fast.

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Argentina's aforementioned tradition of tough, uncompromising neighbourhood football goes hand in hand with the mystique and mythology that cloaks the country's national sport.

A playing style grounded in skill and improvisation – La Nuestra, which translates as "our way" – was locked into the collective consciousness during the first half of the 20th century. The pre-eminent football magazine El Grafico, served to deepen this romantic attachment, with depictions of the pibe – literally a kid or urchin, whose rough and ready footballing technique combined street smarts and skill and was something of an archetype. Typically they would dribble in the gambeta style, a description that implies close control, cunning and deceit of opponents.

The idea that the likes of Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega, Lionel Messi and all those other squat, explosive and technically brilliant attackers from Argentina immersed themselves in the yellowed pages of El Grafico archive is far-fetched, but the style is unquestionably embedded. Think of the amount of barrelling, dribbling goals such players have produced – close control, small pauses and faints as thighs piston their way through defences.

As the walls were closing in on City's title bid, Aguero showed himself to be a proud product of this lineage. When Balotelli began his battle against gravity, he deftly checked his run behind and around Wright-Phillips to open up a path to the penalty area.

Letting the pass roll, he shaped to shoot, drawing a scampering Taiwo, who left his Kompany decoy a little too late to remain in control. Aguero did not actually touch Balotelli's return pass until his body position persuaded a rash slide tackle that he nudged beyond with the outside of his right boot.

With Taiwo suitably gambeta'd, there came one last stroke of fortune.

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"I touched it again and saw I was close to the goal, so I said 'I'll shoot'. The worst thing was that I wanted to shoot hard across goal and it went to the near post, I don't know what happened," Aguero told TyC Sports last year – the latter sentiment at least aligning him with every soul inside the Etihad Stadium that day.

"After watching it back, I realised that if I had shot across goal a defender could have blocked it. I celebrated the goal and told everybody, 'I hit it so well!'."

Goal 23 of a personal Premier League tally that now reads 184, one of 130 with Aguero's ferocious right boot, understandably left an indelible impression on the suddenly defeated Hughes.

"Of all the games I've been involved in, that noise at that moment when that goal went in is different to anything I've ever heard before or since.

"It was just unbelievable sound – different sound to a football crowd. It was a mixture of screaming and noise. It was just an unbelievable moment."

That racket has since been replayed thousands of times across the world. A goal on a tightrope that altered the course of English football, which began with gifting the opposition a 92nd-minute throw-in and ended thanks to a miscue after the main protagonist's strike partner fell over.

It is the Premier League's most famous goal – a moment as synonymous with Manchester as cotton mills and the Hacienda, and yet Argentinian to its very bones.

As Aguero bids farewell to football begins, expect to see it replayed another few thousand times.

Mario Balotelli believes he can earn a dramatic Italy recall in time for the World Cup play-offs, according to his club boss Vincenzo Montella.

The former Inter, Manchester City and Liverpool striker scored 14 goals in 36 games for the Azzurri before his international career ground to a halt in 2018.

Despite his long-time ally Roberto Mancini being head coach of the Azzurri, there has been little hint of a return to Italy duty since Mancini gave him three caps early in his reign.

Those three appearances were Balotelli's first for Italy since the 2014 World Cup, and he has not been called into a squad since September 2018, with his club career taking him in the meantime from Nice onwards to Marseille, Brescia, Monza and currently Adana Demirspor in Turkey.

Balotelli has scored five Super Lig goals this season for a team who sit eighth in the table after 16 games.

Former Roma frontman Montella, who also played for Italy, has floated the idea that there could yet be another chapter in the story of Balotelli's Azzurri career.

"Balotelli has extraordinary technical qualities. He is a good guy who sometimes goes off a little. But I found him very motivated, and I believe that in his career he has never been as concentrated as this year with us," Montella told Italia 1's Tiki Taka programme.

"He is growing a lot, it is a pleasure to coach him. He has the obsession to return to the national team. He is motivated, he believes in it, he knows he has to work hard, but he knows he has three months to convince Mancini that he knows everything about him, his strengths and weaknesses."

 

Italy won Euro 2020 just five months ago but face a battle to get to the World Cup, knowing they must beat North Macedonia on March 24 to set up a decider against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey.

This is because, despite remaining unbeaten in qualifying so far, they finished only second to Switzerland in the group stage. Italy missed out on the 2018 World Cup, so to do so for a second successive time would be a major blow.

Montella said: "Mancini has done an extraordinary job since the beginning of his Azzurri adventure and winning the European Championship was a great thing. Getting to the World Cup will be difficult but Italy, in difficulties, always manage to bring out the best of its potential. I wish and hope that we will be able to qualify."

Mario Balotelli has completed a move to Turkish Super Lig side Adana Demirspor.

The 30-year-old striker spent 2020-21 with Monza in Serie B, where he scored six goals in 14 league appearances.

The former Manchester City forward has now joined the ambitious side from Adana, who secured promotion to Turkey's top flight last season.

The news was announced via a video released through the club's Twitter account.

Balotelli has now been signed to five different clubs since 2019, having spent three years with Nice after leaving Liverpool on a permanent deal in 2016.

The 36-cap Italy international will link up with former Napoli midfielder Gokhan Inler and ex-Montpellier star Younes Belhanda at the New Adana Stadium.

Balotelli was a three-time Serie A winner with Inter and was part of Jose Mourinho's treble-winning squad in 2009-10.

He then joined City, winning the FA Cup in 2010-11 and the Premier League title in 2011-12, before signing for Milan.

A single-season return to England with Liverpool came in 2014-15 before he went back to the Rossoneri on loan, after which he moved to Ligue 1.

Silvio Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, Cristian Brocchi, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gabriel Paletta.

There is a real Milan vibe about Monza, who are nestled 15 kilometres north of the Lombardy capital, as the ambitious club stand closer than ever to achieving their goal of Serie A promotion after spending their entire existence in the lower leagues.

Monza are owned by former Milan president and Italy prime minister Berlusconi, who returned to football in 2018 after selling his beloved Rossoneri a year earlier.

After purchasing the club through his Fininvest company, Berlusconi turned to his trusted right-hand man Galliani – who was born in Monza – as CEO. Their partnership helped turn the Rossoneri into a superpower, with eight Serie A titles and five Champions League/European Cup crowns among the 29 pieces of silverware between 1986 and 2017.

Monza are also coached by former Milan midfielder and boss Brocchi, while the Serie B outfit also boasts ex-Rossoneri players Balotelli, Boateng and Paletta.

After completing their rise from Serie C to the second tier of Italian football amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, Monza are well and truly in the promotion mix – fourth and six points adrift of leaders Empoli, while they are only two points behind Cittadella, who occupy the final automatic spot through 18 games.

Moving up to Serie A would mean a Milan reunion for many of Monza's staff and players, as well as Brocchi – who won the Scudetto and two Champions League titles among other honours at San Siro between 2001 and 2008 before spending a brief period in charge eight years later.

"It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

"Board, manager and some players have worn that shirt and the dream to recreate Milan here in Monza is beautiful and emotional."

"It is a tough season. There are many strong clubs, the ones relegated from A [in 2019-20] who have retained all the important players and those who last season had built up a squad for promotion and failed, so I think this year's Serie B is the hardest of recent times," he continued.

Monza – back in Serie B following a 19-year absence – are no ordinary second-tier team in Italy, with all eyes on the Bagai due to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's presence has changed the landscape for Monza, who tried to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic before the star striker opted to return to Milan in January last year. However, Monza have since lured Balotelli and Boateng to the club.

"Working for Berlusconi and Galliani's club is grand because all media attention is on you. For sure everybody thinks Monza have to win every game because these two people have gone down in football history winning so much. And this is exactly our goal," Brocchi said.

"I know very well Berlusconi and Galliani's wish is to reach Serie A and win every game. We share the same mindset because I have grown up with them since I was nine. To me it is an honour to be the manager here.

"For sure it is beautiful and important for me to manage in a club like Monza that are very ambitious. It is not easy to take a club from Serie C to Serie A but it is emotional because you have a lot of responsibilities and adrenaline is always rushing. As I said, to face strong clubs with your own aim and manage to overcome them, would make this even better." 

Brocchi, who oversaw just seven matches as Milan coach before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella, continued: "Monza's aim is to improve. We started from C, we are in B and we want Serie A. The difference between us and other clubs is that once in Serie A we won't have the goal of avoiding relegation at the last game, but to rank in the top 10.

"Mr Galliani wants us to always be a strong team going for great objectives. This is what will happen should we win this league."

Balotelli and Boateng are set to play a key role in Monza's push for promotion following their high-profile arrivals.

Boateng has made an immediate impact, with the former Milan and Barcelona midfielder – on average – scoring a goal every 243 minutes in Serie B this season, the best average among Monza players with at least 90 minutes played.

Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

"They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

"They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

The strategy of sporting director Filippo Antonelli and Brocchi to invest in promising young talent has continued to deliver results on the pitch.

Monza have allowed the fewest headed goals (one) in Serie B this season, while Brocchi's side have conceded 10 goals from inside the box – the least in the league, while they have scored five goals inside the opening 15 minutes of play – the joint most in 2020-21.

"Monza are a mix of experienced players and great young talents. The right mix to achieve our goals. Players like Balotelli and Boateng can help Mota, Carlos Augusto, Frattesi, Colpani or Bettella, all under-21 players for Italy and Portugal," the 44-year-old Brocchi said.

"You can't only field experienced players, you have to look for the right mix and this is what Antonelli and I looked for. I think experience helps youngsters and their exuberance helps the expert ones."

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