MANCHESTER, United Kingdom - Manchester City attempted to downplay talk of another rift with their controversial forward Mario Balotelli after the Premier League champions produced their best form of the season in a 3-0 victory over Sunderland.
Goals from Aleksandar Kolarov, Sergio Aguero, who replaced Balotelli after 55 minutes, and James Milner were accompanied by City's first clean sheet of the campaign.
But the game was overshadowed somewhat by the behaviour of Balotelli who sauntered off the field and stormed directly down the tunnel to the City dressing room after being substituted.
City coach David Platt refused to be drawn on a subject over which the club has become increasingly sensitive.
"I don't know," said Platt when asked why Balotelli had walked down the tunnel instead of taking his place on the City bench.
Platt responded in identical fashion when asked if it was normal procedure for a player to walk down the tunnel rather than watch the rest of the match.
And Platt confirmed that Balotelli's removal from the game was a purely tactical decision and not one enforced by injury to the Italian, who has yet to score in the league this season.
City manager Roberto Mancini unconvincingly claimed that he was happy with Balotelli's performance.
"Mario worked a lot, he had a chance," Mancini said. "I am happy with Mario. Mario played a good game, I think he can do better."
But the player's behaviour has undoubtedly attracted unwanted attention, following on from his last league appearance at Eastlands when Mancini pushed the player down the tunnel after the pair were seen exchanging angry words on the final whistle.
Despite the tantrum, City were in clinical form against Sunderland, looking convincing after a slow start to the season had raised question marks about their ability to retain the title.
"It was important to get this victory before the international break," said Mancini.
"If we didn't play very well in the first five games in the league, the last two we have played really well. I think we have improved.
"I think it was a very good performance. It wasn't easy because Sunderland are a good team. Everybody plays well against us so this was a difficult game."
Platt confirmed his manager's assessment that City are finally starting to rediscover the form and style that made them such memorable champions in May.
"I don't think we've been stuttering as much people want to make out," said Platt.
"We've set ourselves in a decent position. Chelsea have flown away as we did last season."
Victory against the only team to collect a league point at Eastlands last season also extended City's unbeaten home Premier League record to 33 games, a sequence dating back almost two years.
Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill had no complaints about the result and acknowledged City's vast superiority.
"We were well beaten by a superior team and I have very little complaint," he said.
"My complaint is with us. When we had the ball, we gave it away too easily and could have been further behind at half-time.
"We were always in with a chance, but attacked too infrequently. The second goal was a big moment because it allowed them to show their ability.
"They were much better than us, but we should have been able to do better and deal with the ball more easily."
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