City thoroughbreds on the gallop

Posted by Simon Curtis

It is twelve days precisely since Manchester City and Chelsea locked horns in an intriguing Premier League contest at the Etihad. On that occasion, Chelsea surprised City with their shape and proceeded to run rings around an understaffed home midfield, running out deserved winners. Twelve days is a very long time in football, however, and on Saturday the two teams reversed roles for their 5th round FA Cup tie, won at a relative canter by City, with heroes emerging all over the pitch.

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Manuel Pellegrini, out-thought by the much-lauded, much-talked about tactical wizardry of Jose Mourinho's five man midfield last time out, proved you are never too old to learn new tricks. Here the Chilean had learned all of his lessons. With a small number of precise turns of the spanner, the Engineer had the sky blue motor ticking over beautifully again and almost without a hiccup throughout the ninety minutes. With Barcelona on the near horizon, what a time it was to come back to form.

So, what had changed to make this such a satisfying spectacle for blues fans? First of all, the 2011-12 title-winning central defensive pairing of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott were back in harness. Many were puzzled that Roberto Mancini broke it up in the first place, but the form of Matija Nastasic helped people forget how effective Lescott had been previously alongside his faultless captain. Here it was like old times with the two reunited in a deeply effective partnership.

In front of them, the off-pace Martin Demichelis, embarrassingly overrun last time out, was replaced by the not-noticeably swifter Javi Garcia; but what a game the Spaniard had. Effective in the tackle, solid in his marking, accurate in his passing, Garcia put in perhaps his finest ninety minutes so far in a sky blue shirt. With Stevan Jovetic performing a mobile and dangerous shuttle between the City midfield and the attack spearheaded by Edin Dzeko, City's shape and choice of personnel turned out to be perfect for the occasion.

Gone too was the wizardry and dynamism of Chelsea's midfield quintet. Ramires, substituted early, was out of sorts. Hazard, the dominant force last time, found no space for those clever flicked balls and Willian, an all-action terrier, was crowded out by the limpet attentions of Pablo Zabaleta, James Milner and Garcia. If you wanted a snapshot of the game, you got it in a nutshell in minute 35 of the first half: Ramires running into what space he could find in an advanced midfield area looked up to see where he could put the ball next. In the instant he searched, what he found was David Silva wrapping a boot round his legs from behind to enact a perfect recovering tackle. The tippy tappy magician dispossessing Chelsea's run-all-night motor with a clean, sharp tackle. A delicious reversal of roles in a match where City reversed Chelsea's dominance from last time.

In among this maelstrom of legs and arms, however, stood a man-beast who just refused to be by-passed. Yaya Toure walks like a man who has just undergone complicated physiotherapy after falling from a horse. You would not put money on him reaching the touchline without needing to find a haystack to sit on for a quick rest, but, given enough time to lift himself into a canter, the big man is practically unplayable. Here he turned inside and out, pirouetted in those canal sized boots, charged hither and thither with Willian and Mohamed Salah hanging from the seat of his pants. A truly majestic performance from the Elephant of Bondoukou, with Garcia's honest prompting alongside him producing a barrier that Chelsea could not surpass.

There were other new faces to the soap opera too. Jovetic, suddenly fit and spry, ran at a bewildered and overrun away defence with verve and panache, eager for the ball and energetic in his support of both Dzeko and the midfielders behind him. And there was more, so much more. On came Samir Nasri to reintroduce us all to the delightful one touch triangles in City's midfield that had been missing last time against the Blues and also at Norwich in the goalless league stalemate.

With Chelsea tiring from the runaround they were getting and City's legs fresh from their late postponement in midweek, Pellegrini puled the last trump card. Jesus Navas, Nasri and Alvaro Negredo on as substitutes. How to demoralise a beaten side. Here comes skill and touch, here comes power and passion, here comes speed and trickery. You could almost catch the word "obrigado" on Mourinho's lips, as he watched the last semblance of order in his ranks disintegrate. Nasri duly delivered the coup de grace, when a delightful piece of improvisation with David Silva ended with Nasri prodding imperiously past Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal for City's richly deserved second.

The Portuguese coach's little ponies had been reduced to common or garden mules and City, slow to break into a trot last time out, had produced a performance fitting of the finest thoroughbreds on the gallop.

What a difference twelve days can make.

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