For a long time it didn't look as though Chelsea would be able to break through against the defensive wall erected by Roberto Mancini's Manchester City, who fielded both Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry in a midfield shield designed to soak up everything that Chelsea could throw at them. It worked for almost eighty minutes, but Chelsea's shift to a 4-3-3 and replacement of their entire forward line proved the impetus to break the visitors down. David Luiz headed home from a Drogba free kick in the 78th minute before fellow Brazilian Ramires took advantage of tired legs to blaze through the heart of City's defence and smash home past a helpless Joe Hart.
Both teams needed to win today in order to say within theoretical shouting distance of Manchester United at the top of the table, but with the news that Carlos Tevez was unavailable thanks to a groin injury expecting much attacking impetus from the visitors would have been extraordinarily wishful thinking. Tottenham Hotspur's 0-0 draw against West Ham United gave City some breathing room to play for the draw, which they happily did. Unfortunately for them, they didn't get it, and the home side's win dropped City into 4th place and into a major fight to gain Champions League qualification.
Chelsea, on the other hand, will be more than happy with their win - beating Manchester City and Tottenham both is vital to ensure that they make their target in the top four, and this win was a huge step towards that. The three points even keep the Blues in touch with Arsenal and Manchester United at the top of the table, and although it would be very presumptuous to claim that that Chelsea are back in the title race when the side is nine points the leaders, they're at least forcing the top two to look over their shoulder.
Manchester City kept to their usual 4-2-3-1 shape with David Silva drifting in off the left and James Milner getting a rare start as a right winger, but Chelsea experimented with what almost ended up being a 4-1-3-2, with Salomon Kalou and Fernando Torres leading the attack and Michael Essien playing a holding role. The Blues had the personnel on the pitch to be playing a 4-3-3 but never quite made it there. Regardless of the exact shape, they handle City's threat without a problem and the movement of Kalou and Torres was excellent throughout.
The visitors did have the first chance of the match when Yaya Toure shot from long range and forced Petr Cech into a sprawling save, but from then on it was all Chelsea, who favoured attacking down the left by using the combined powers of Florent Malouda and Ashley Cole. However, the hosts found it difficult to penetrate the massed ranks of City's defence, and the few times they did they were caught by the offside flag, denied by last ditch tackles and perhaps most bizarrely, tripped by their own player while one on one with the goalkeeper (Ramires' tackle took the ball to Kalou in the penalty area, but Ramires himself arrive half a second later), a moment which doubtless would have been far more annoying had Chelsea not actually won the match.
Perhaps the best opportunity for Chelsea to open the scoring came when Kalou attempted a cross from the right only to see the ball deflect off Joleon Lescott's outstretched arm. Chris Foy ignored the protests for the penalty, but with Lescott doing his best impression of an albatross (the bird, not the contract - he does the latter all the time anyway) that was surely a foul if we're going by the book. At the very end of the first half, Kalou, who really was popping up all over the place, did excellently to find space in the box following a cross by Malouda, but his shot was right at a grateful Joe Hart. That that was Chelsea's first shot on target despite dominating the match was testament to just how well City's more defensive players were playing, with both Vincent Kompany and de Jong hugely impressive in denying the Blues.
Edin Dzeko was cutting a forlorn figure up, easily handled by both David Luiz and John Terry, while Branislav Ivanovic managed to mostly keep track of David Silva. Milner escaped more frequently from Ashley Cole thanks to the leftback's surging runs upfield, but the England winger mostly took care of defending himself with a series of abysmal crosses. The only damage City were able to do to Chelsea came in the form of a crude headbutt on Florent Malouda during an aerial challenge, with the annoyed Frenchman having to leave the field to stitch up a nasty gash on his cheek afterwards.
Halftime came and it was 0-0 with Chelsea clearly the better side and holding on for dear lives. Manchester City were doing nothing with the ball and Chelsea were able to keep continuous possession in their half for most of the match, but in terms of pure scoring chances weren't creating much of anything. Frank Lampard was working very hard but his shooting was terrible, while Ivanovic's crossing was similarly poor. Malouda and Cole posed a threat on the left side, but the play was simply too slow to cause City any trouble. It looked as though the match had a good chance of ending 0-0, despite fine work from both Torres and Kalou up front, and Mancini would have been far happier than Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti after the first 45 minutes.
If either manager was tempted to change the game, they didn't show it, and the second half started in much the same way the first half ended. Malouda had an early chance but shot right at Hart when it looked easier to score. City were looking a little more menacing going forward than they had done in the first half, but that simply gave David Luiz the opportunity to show off his silky skills in defence, on one occasion easing Dzeko off the ball like he wasn't there, sending Milner sliding off the pitch by the corner flag, then launching a Chelsea foray forward.
Chelsea were in no real danger of losing the match, but there was still a major scare midway through the half when John Terry was forced into a slide tackle on Yaya Toure. The captain won the ball pretty easily, breaking up what had looked like a promising attack, but then was fallen on by the massive Ivorian. This apparently did some damage to Terry's knee, but after staying down for a minute or so he hobbled about and declared himself to be fit to continue. As miracle recoveries go, this appeared to be entirely based on force of will.
The fouls were coming in thick and fast and when Torres was hacked down one too many times by a City defence that was getting away with murder, Carlo Ancelotti decided that he'd had enough and replaced Malouda and the Spaniard with Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba respectively. You have a big Ivorian?, Carlo seemed to say, Well so do we. Eventually Kalou was also hauled off for Yuri Zhirkov, and Chelsea moved to a 4-3-3.
The phsyical presence of Drogba unlocked the game, and with Manchester City tiring the appearance of an explosively strong striker was exactly the last thing they needed. However, although Drogba provided the assist for the opening goal, Yuri Zhirkov and David Luiz did most of the work in earning it, the Russian and Brazilian combining to draw a foul near the corner flag when Micah Richards went through the back of Luiz.
Drogba took the free kick and unlike Chelsea's previous crosses was delivered into a dangerous position and to a Chelsea player. Luiz then did his part, glancing his header beautifully past a despairing Hart and in at the far post. The £23M centre back has now scored two goals in three matches, and they've both been vitally important - the equaliser against Machester United and now the eventual winger against City.
Mancini was forced to chase the game and Ashley Cole made matters worse for him by injury Yaya Toure in a tackle that might just about be deemed within the laws of the game. Mario Balotelli and Adam Johnson were both introduced to try to snatch an equalising goal, but it was Chelsea who looked the more threatening to score. They managed to make the points secure after slight spell of pressure from the guests when Ramires sauntered past both Lescott and Kolavrov before planting a firm shot past Joe Hart and making it 2-0.
So, Chelsea win a vital game thanks to some Brazilian flair. It was probably the best team effort we've seen in several months - there were very few misfiring players. Special praise goes, of course, to the goalscorers, but each of Essien, Torres, Kalou and Terry deserve some thanks for their role in an extraordinarily important win.