Joe Hart defends Mario Balotelli and Manchester City's fighting spirit

• Balotelli is 'a very clever guy' who is learning all the time
• Hart says focus on punch-ups at City is unfair

As a rule, successful teams do not throw punches at each other. But as Manchester City near their first FA Cup final for 30 years, you could measure out their season in bust-ups.

Kolo Touré versus Emmanuel Adebayor; James Milner versus Yaya Touré; Mario Balotelli versus everyone. Their goalkeeper Joe Hart does not dispute that these confrontations happened but argues that most were only publicised because City's training ground at Carrington is so accessible, compared with London Colney, Cobham or the other Carrington, where Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United respectively train.

"It's quite amusing to open the paper the next day and see how people have totally misread a situation," Hart said before addressing the Poynton branch of the club's supporters' association in one of the plusher parts of Cheshire.

"Don't get me wrong – some of them have happened, and we are men training hard and wanting to win, and sometimes you are going to have to smash someone. That's life. After every single one of the skirmishes, not one has carried on longer than 25 yards and whoever has been involved will have realised there is no need for it and moved on.

"If people were hanging around other training grounds, they'd find a lot more interesting things going on but they just seem quite keen on our lads at the moment, but I am sure that will pass. Honestly, they [the photographers] are hanging out of trees – and I am not joking."

Most of the lenses are pointed at the tall, slim, often uncertain figure of Balotelli, the boy José Mourinho could not control at Internazionale, the archetypal footballer as soap opera star. "I have a lot of time for Mario," said Hart. "I think people forget he is 20 years of age and has an awful lot on his plate.

"People appreciate that sometimes he doesn't handle situations great but he wasn't born a great public speaker or a person that acts well under pressure. He was born a great footballer and that cannot be

"questioned. I don't know if people expect too much. I think he is learning all the time and I think he wants to learn. He was born a great footballer and that doesn't always come with everything you need."

As their chairman, Khaldoon al‑Mubarak, impressed on the squad before the 5-0 rout of Sunderland last week, trophies are expected, too, and the Europa League seemed the most obvious. Balotelli's chest‑high assault on Dynamo Kyiv's Goran Popov, for which he was dismissed, put paid to that.

"We were as disappointed as he was," said Hart. "Hopefully, he's going to repay us with some big performances. He is an intelligent guy; don't worry about him. He can speak English, he knows exactly what's going on. When he wants to be, he is a very good player. He is a very clever guy and he knows when he needs to do something."

Hart does not have much time for the theory that Manchester City are a "work in progress" and that for now Champions League qualification – which victory in Monday's encounter at Liverpool will go a long way to ensuring – is enough.

"No, I don't see us as a 'work in progress'. We are gutted at the opportunities we have missed. Should we still be in the title race? I don't know. There are opportunities we could have taken but you have to respect everyone in this league and we haven't got the results we could have wanted.

"What's the point of playing football if the people who spend the most money win the league? It is not how it works and it's why we love the game."

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