Sunday, August 12, 2012
City make early statement
Richard Jolly, Villa Park
Briefly, Chelsea may have dreamed of Barcelona and of staging a repeat of their finest hour and a half. The omens were there. A man down against a champion side following a defender's recklessness, with Ramires dropping into defence to compensate, with a goal from Fernando Torres, they could sense another improbable triumph.
Then reality, in the shape of Manchester City, intervened. This time ageing limbs proved inadequate to halt the tide of attacks. This time indiscipline came at a cost. This time, they were the losers. After the miracle in the Nou Camp came the normality of Villa Park. Great rearguard actions are memorable precisely because of their rarity and their implausibility.
As City lifted the Community Shield, as English champions beat their European counterparts, the significant statistic was not the £65 million Chelsea have spent this summer, but the gulf between them last season. "We have to catch up 25 points," Blues' boss Roberto Di Matteo said. It should serve as a reminder of how much Chelsea achieved in their spring uprising, and of how steep their task is to overhaul their Mancunian rivals remains.
It is a sign of Di Matteo's alchemy that even the numbers on the Chelsea players' backs have turned gold. There have long been stars inside the blue shirts, but now there is one on the front, denoting their status as Champions League winners.
An era ended on a heady Munich night in May. Another officially began in the Birmingham drizzle, as Chelsea aim to prosper again but with rather more elan. Instead City, those unusual paragons of continuity, maintained their winning habit. To Roberto Mancini's considerable frustration, they have had a strange stability.
Jack Rodwell is set to become a belated first summer signing, yet the complaints of the super-rich receive little sympathy. Mancini can covet Robin van Persie, but does he need the Dutchman? When Carlos Tevez is at his turbo-charged best, perhaps not. Even with Mario Balotelli making a spectacle of himself by donning glasses in the stand, a familiar question may have crossed Chelsea lips: why always him?
Because Tevez has been a scourge of them since his Manchester United days. An irrepressible bundle of energy, he can be too short, sharp and skilful for John Terry's liking. Five months after his mutiny in Munich, he came in from the cold for City by supplying a Samir Nasri winner against Chelsea. Five months after one comeback when trailing, this was another. Tevez scored City's second goal, scurrying past David Luiz and Terry before whipping a shot past Petr Cech. The goal scored, a t-shirt was revealed. "Fuerte Apache," the message, celebrating Tevez's upbringing in that suburb of Buenos Aires. Infamously, he spent much of City's title-winning campaign in Argentina. Now he may be a changed figure. "It is the first time in four or five years he did a pre-season," Mancini said. "His form is better than last season."
Yaya Toure's was outstanding then and remains impressive as he showed in grabbing the equaliser. If a criticism levelled at Manchester United is that they do not have an equivalent of the Ivorian, neither do Chelsea: not with Ramires deployed on the right and Michael Essien in decline anyway. The combination of Nasri's elusiveness and Toure's forcefulness was too much for John Obi Mikel, whose renaissance under Di Matteo may be threatened now.
Two goals came from unmarked midfielders, an indictment of any anchorman. Striding forward, Toure latched on to a Terry clearance to drill in the equaliser. In glorious isolation, Nasri volleyed in Aleksandar Kolarov's cross.
The wing-back had an eventful afternoon. He escaped unscathed when Branislav Ivanovic planted his studs in his fellow Serb's shin, but the Chelsea defender received his marching orders. "It probably changed the game in favour of Man City," Di Matteo said. The timing was particularly poor: it came a couple of minutes after Fernando Torres, with a lovely waft of his left foot, had put his side ahead following a burst from Ramires. Ryan Bertrand added a second, but without stopping City's celebrations.
If the game was distorted by a dismissal, however, Mancini had a point when he suggested they were the superior side when Chelsea had a full complement of players. They included the only newcomer on show, the £32 million Eden Hazard, whose arrival, along with those of Marko Marin and Oscar, forms part of Chelsea's expensive overhaul.
City's rebranding came with the existing personnel. The same players operated in a different system, a 3-4-1-2 used in pre-season, and the change of shape suits them. For Chelsea, the formation was familiar, but a problem is recurring. In six games, even if five were pre-season friendlies, they have conceded 13 times. Defensive resolve took Chelsea into uncharted territory in Munich. Now, as they imagine a bright new future, the first objective is to turn the clock back and secure a shutout.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Carlos Tevez - Looked hungry and potent. On current form, an Argentine alliance of Tevez and Aguero is City's strongest strike force. They linked up well, interchanging positions and forming a fluent front three with Nasri.
CHELSEA VERDICT: The greatest positive was that Torres excelled. A Chelsea team is finally being built around the £50 million man and he seems to be relishing it. Hazard showed glimpses of his gifts but the defence, left exposed by Mikel, creaked and both Ramires and Frank Lampard could both have collected a second caution.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Mancini has a habit of making influential substitutions and he did so again. After another savaging for Stefan Savic, the youngster was hauled off at half-time. Gael Clichy came on and did rather better. Indeed while City played three central defenders only one of the second-half trio - Vincent Kompany - is a regular in the position, with full-backs Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta flanking him. The new system works well for Kolarov, a rampaging wing-back, but suggests central defenders top Mancini's shopping list.