Merry Mario leads Manchester City training as defending champions gear up for festive period
15:40 GMT, 24 December 2012
Making up two points on leaders and fierce rivals Manchester United would have bought more than a hint of festive cheer to City's training ground on Christmas Eve.
And the presence of the club's very own crackers character Mario Balotelli gave the squad a lift, as did the sight of captain Vincent Kompany coming through the session.
In fact, so good was the spirit in camp that youngster Matija Nastasic, who has previously enjoyed a winter break in Italy, said he was relishing his first taste of England's traditionally busy Christmas schedule.
Christmas crackers: Manchester City got an early present when they made up two points on United
Christmas cheer: Mario Balotelli was put through his paces in the freezing cold of Manchester
The 19-year-old centre-back, who has
made a big impression since his arrival from Fiorentina in August, is
unfazed by the prospect of playing five games in the space of 15 days.
is also far from concerned by the fact the next two of those matches,
at Sunderland on Boxing Day and Norwich next Saturday, will involve
it is not a problem,' said the Serbia international. 'I am always happy
when I am playing, so this time of the season makes me happiest of all!
Carlos the joker: Tevez was the one enjoying the Christmas Ever session the most, judging by his smile
'My father and mother are here, so I won't miss my family. I don't look at the two long away trips as a problem at all.
'Now we concentrate on the Sunderland game, and then we focus on Norwich – it's not a headache.
'The league in Italy stops, and we have a break, but playing here is no problem for me. I am looking forward to the next couple of games.'
City needed a last-gasp winner from Gareth Barry to beat Barclays Premier League bottom side Reading in the first of their festive matches at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
Having gone into the game trailing leaders Manchester United by six points, the champions were in danger of handing their title rivals another boost until Barry headed home a contentious goal in injury time.
Reading felt Barry had fouled Nicky Shorey but City celebrated a valuable three points amid much relief and their joy increased later in the weekend when Swansea held United to a draw.
Although Reading showed commendable
resilience throughout, Nastasic felt victory was deserved for City's
obvious superiority and greater number of chances over the whole game.
said: 'We knew the game would be difficult because it was obvious they
would just come and defend, but we deserved the goal in the last minute.
played 11 men behind the ball, in a small area which always makes it
very difficult to attack – but that was their game plan.
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'We are a very strong team, self-motivated and full of confidence at the moment. What is important is that we keep the same attitude, if we want to win the Premier League. We won the game, and that is the important thing.'
Nastasic's consistent and unfussy performances are currently keeping England centre-back Joleon Lescott out of the City side.
There was even the unusual sight on Saturday of Lescott and captain Vincent Kompany – the heart of City's title-winning defence last season – on the bench as Nastasic partnered Kolo Toure.
Manager Roberto Mancini's regard for the player is evident and he is quickly becoming a fans' favourite.
said: 'It makes me happy if the fans think highly of me, and I just
want to keep playing the way I am – that is the objective for the whole
team, not just me.'
was not risked against Reading as he continues to recover from the
groin injury he suffered in the Manchester derby defeat a fortnight ago.
Head for the top: Gareth Barry got the champion out of trouble with a late goal against Reading
Another teenager, Karim Rekik, was also deployed at left-back as both Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov were sidelined by niggles.
Their fitness will be assessed ahead of the trip to the Stadium of Light while controversial striker Mario Balotelli could come back into contention after illness last week but forward Samir Nasri is out with a hamstring injury.
The match marks the halfway point of the season and Mancini wants his side to start picking up the tempo.
The Italian said: 'We can work better but at the same time I think that we need to do more than last year. From the first six months we need to work better – that's individuals and the group.'