Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Tevez provides a welcome contribution
Richard Jolly, Etihad Stadium
This was the seminal performance of his season, the day he delivered a crucial contribution to Manchester City's title challenge. It was an eloquent reminder of why he cost an exorbitant fee, of why he is paid enormous wages. And yet, as Samir Nasri finished beautifully, wheeled away in shirtless jubilation and accepted the congratulations of his team-mates, the Frenchman was both feted and fated.
Fated because a marvellous recovery is likely to be remembered not because of Nasri but for Carlos, the comeback. Tevez, the man who has tormented opponents and his own manager, contrived to be the controversial catalyst. After six months on the sidelines and the golf course, in exile and in disgrace, the returning Argentine made his mark within 20 minutes, providing the lovely weighted pass for the on-rushing Nasri to condemn Chelsea to a first defeat of Roberto Di Matteo's reign. This was Tevez in minutiae, highlighting the contradiction in his character. He is the individual who can be selfless team player.
Entering the Etihad Stadium pitch to a mixture of applause and boos, he left to cheers. The bridges the striking striker burned have to be repaired, but the restoration job has begun. Having accused his manager of treating him like a dog, this particular mutt is now Roberto Mancini's best friend. "Carlos is an important player," the manager said. "When he plays, he knows where he should take the ball. He did an important assist for Samir."
A strange alliance may be a Faustian pact for the last ten games of the campaign but, had it not been for Tevez's intervention, Manchester United's 20th title may have looked a formality; instead City recorded a 20th successive home league win to claim one of their rivals' records.
It was, of course, far more than simply Tevez. For starters, it was a tale of two other Argentines: Pablo Zabaleta, the unheralded big-game player whose thumped shot hit Michael Essien's raised arm, and Sergio Aguero, who nervelessly converted the resulting penalty. It was about Micah Richards, who stood in at centre-back impressively, Yaya Toure, the all-action athlete, and Nasri, who delivered a decisive display. Above all, perhaps, it was about Mancini, who tinkered constantly and eventually struck on a winning formula. For the second successive game, his substitutions transformed a match.
For the second time, too, the supposed roundhead showed his cavalier side, throwing caution to the wind. City ended with a three-man strike force of Aguero, Tevez and Edin Dzeko, supported by Nasri and Yaya Toure, Mancini's reputation enhanced by the victory and his image diminished by an arm-pumping celebration, proving even the chicest of managers can appear distinctly unhip when a goal goes in.
The other Roberto, Di Matteo, exhibited a trait Mancini was long accused of, an excessive fondness for defensive midfielders. With John Obi Mikel already shielding the back four, he introduced Essien, who conceded the spot kick. "A harsh decision but probably the right one," an admirably honest Di Matteo said. Yet having taken the lead, Chelsea sat back, inviting City on and creating pressure for themselves.
But a determined display threatened to bring a win that could have propelled Di Matteo into pole position to succeed Andre Villas-Boas on a permanent basis. Chelsea took the lead with a scrappy, scruffy goal, the ball bouncing off Gareth Barry, who was shoved by David Luiz, to Gary Cahill, whose tame shot took a telling deflection off Yaya Toure.
It made them the first opponent to lead at the Etihad Stadium in the league this season, even if their goal had led a charmed life. Nasri had struck the woodwork twice; he was unfortunate with a dipping lob that bounced back off the bar but would have been highly fortunate had he scored with a cross Cech almost diverted into his own net. Mario Balotelli, sent clear by Frank Lampard's stray pass, was denied by the goalkeeper. "We had three or four incredible chances," Mancini said.
But the fightback made this a mirror image of Chelsea's 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December and another hard-luck tale for the visitors. "We are very disappointed," Di Matteo said. "I thought we defended very well."
Playing 70 minutes with Jose Bosingwa, David Luiz and Cahill, who afforded Tevez too much space to turn for the winner, may not be the recipe for resilience, but Chelsea have shown renewed resolve since Villas-Boas' sacking.
But in a meeting of two £180 million starting elevens, as Emirati oil money trumped Russian gas cash, the man who has given up the best part of £10 million in fines, unpaid salary and forgone bonuses emerged from bench, willing to come on this time, to shape the title race. Welcome back to Manchester, Carlos.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Samir Nasri. Mancini agreed that this was Nasri's finest City performance although, as he invariably does whenever anyone under the age of 26 is discussed, insisted that he must improve. With David Silva out of form, it is all the more important that another inventive talent shines.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: This was their eighth win in ten league games, proving suggestions of a slump have been rather exaggerated and showing United, now one point ahead of them, have been on a superlative run. Mancini insisted the half-time replacement of Balotelli was purely tactical but it was notable that Dzeko, who came on after Tevez, now ranks fourth in the queue for striking places. The manager hopes to have one half of his preferred central-defensive duo back for Saturday's trip to Stoke, with Vincent Kompany likely to be in contention. However, Joleon Lescott is expected to miss out.
CHELSEA VERDICT: "We are going in the right direction," Di Matteo said, and they are. The aim remains to claim fourth place and Spurs, now looking more vulnerable than Arsenal, are their next opponents. The Italian will wait to see if Branislav Ivanovic, who went off with a thigh problem, is fit for Saturday's derby. Di Matteo has intrigued with some of his selections and picked Fernando Torres ahead of Didier Drogba. The Spaniard started well, suiting Chelsea's counter-attacking gameplan, before fading and seemed unhappy to be substituted. "There is absolutely no problem," the interim manager, who tried to placate the £50 million man, said. "I communicate with my players." Perhaps his predecessor did not.