Man City find swagger to see off Blues

Posted by Simon Curtis

If this was second versus third, knocking great lumps out of each other in a match of spellbinding ebb and flow, an onlooker from outer Mongolia might have been forgiven for asking what the best team in the land looked like. Chelsea and City, destined to be this season's nearly men, served up a treat for the Etihad faithful, a 2-0 City win so full of incident and attacking intent, it was hard to fault any of those involved.

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Roberto Mancini's team selection, again shaped by outside forces, left him with a potentially brittle centre back partnership in Kolo Toure and young Matija Nastasic, plus an untried defensive midfield of the hitherto pedestrian Jack Rodwell and the slow-turning safety-first of Javi Garcia. How the lack of faith from some of us was repaid! Toure was excellent at the back, and caught for pace only once, when Demba Ba skipped through to collide with Joe Hart for Chelsea's penalty. On that occasion, the big keeper came to the rescue. For the rest of the match, neither Toure nor his partner Nastasic needed anybody doing their work for them, as they kept an increasingly attack-minded Chelsea at bay.

In front of them, Rodwell was having the game of his (City) life. At last those long legs were put to good use, tackling fiendishly, galloping forward to get on the end of chance after chance and haring back to defend. At times, the ex-Everton midfielder seemed everywhere. Each time City had a chance in front of goal, it was Rodwell getting his head to it. The home crowd warmed to the youngster's enthusiastic performance, and by the time he was removed from battle on 53 minutes to let Carlos Tevez loose on a tiring Chelsea rearguard, he had hoisted himself into contention for the man of the match award.

That his replacement was responsible for the game's second, stunning goal was a tribute to that oft-neglected managerial skill, the art of the timely substitution. Many a time last season, Mancini and his staff were scolded for replacing a supposedly attacking player with a defensive one, casual onlookers forgetting that it very often released the Ivorian tank for forward duty. On this occasion, it was a more obvious exchange of Tevez for Rodwell that brought quick and spectacular results. City's forward line and its stuttering inability to put away chances has been one of the biggest differences between this season and last, but here, Tevez took a touch from David Silva and walloped his foot through the ball with such power, it sailed past goalkeeper Petr Cech before he fully realised what was happening.

This piece of raw power sat nicely alongside the artistry of the first, owing everything to the balletic balance of big Yaya Toure, as he danced the Ivorian hopscotch to work himself into space, then tucked a delicate curling shot through the eye of the needle to score at the keeper's far post. This was City in full pomp, the swagger, the quick touch and go, the effervescent running. It made you want to turn the clock back three months and to start the pre-Christmas fixtures again. On this form, the Blues are a match for anybody, and if this is added to the Leeds game, where a similar burst of positive energy could have seen City reach double figures, perhaps we are all in for a royal run-in after all.

With Milner's astute running, the usual quality of pass and move from Yaya and Silva and energetic wide performances from Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, the fully functioning parts produced a tasty winter soup for us all to feast on. Hart's penalty save after Ba had launched himself into an entanglement of limbs showed the England keeper is also regaining the levels of concentration and agility that have become his trademark. Strangely, despite another performance of energy and selfless running, only the goal-shy Sergio Aguero could justify slight criticism, as all of those kilometres covered could only produce shanked lobs and blocked shots. The little Argentinian's goal return is not a patch on last season, it has to be said.

Despite this relative famine of goals, the kettle appears to be coming to a boil, if not quite in time to stop the Stretford Express, then certainly in time to board the Wembley charabanc, which will be of some comfort to those beginning to believe the 2012-13 season might leave us all empty-handed. For there is quite obviously still time to salvage something useful and beautiful from what has been threatening to become an increasingly frustrating season.

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