It's easy to forget that a couple of weeks Chelsea were staring at exiting the Champions League and being completely adrift of the top four placings. The sacking of Villas-Boas brought new life around the team, and some excellent performances have produced some excellent results. Arguably the toughest test any Premier League side will face, the best quality individuals at their fortress, and yet Chelsea were sitting 1-0 up deep into the second half. City managed to pull themselves back into the game, and while the result is disappointing, it's important to look at the bigger picture and focus rather on the more realistic goal of beating Spurs this weekend.
Roberto Di Matteo sent out an unusual Chelsea lineup, but it was relatively easy to work out who was in what position. Raul Meireles would play centrally in the attacking band of three, a rare position, but one he excelled in in the last part of the match against Leicester. Fernando Torres was the greatest beneficiary of this, so he was granted the start over Didier Drogba. Juan Mata returned to the left wing, and Lampard and Mikel made up the double pivot. All in all, a relatively pleasing Chelsea side.
NB: I vaguely remember that Meireles' best performances for Liverpool came in a similar, Gerrard-like role, but not sure if this is entirely true.
Roberto Mancini had a few dilemmas too, seeing as playing Savic is paramount to suicide given the centreback's current form. Instead, Micah Richards moved centrally and Zabaleta played right back. In the attacking third Balotelli was preferred, as was Samir Nasri for Edin Dzeko and James Milner respectively.
While City established themselves in our half pretty early on, the first most significant event of the game was Fernando Torres jinxing run which set Mata up in a good position, but the Spaniard couldn't get the shot away on target. It seemed immediately afterwards that City would make Mata pay for his inaccuracy, but the bar denied Samir Nasri, and not for the last time. The ball swung from end to end, with Manchester certainly more predominant in possession, but the game was ponderous, with both sides lacking any sort of precision when they approached the opposition's box. Yaya Toure was a bright spot for City, with his powerful runs providing the best source of penetration. What was most entertaining was the little scrap between the Ivorian and Chelsea's little Juan, to which point someone needs to point out to the City player that it's really not cool picking on players just because they're better than your own.
City's best attacks were coming through the middle, epitomizing the nature of the game and the fact that both sides lacked proper wide players. Zabaleta in particular had a lot of room to roam in the space between Mata and Ashley Cole, but City weren't doing too well at exploiting this. At the other end Meireles and Mata were wasteful, with Torres flashing between good and bad.
The best chance of the first half came when Lampard played an excellent through ball that demonstrated the full extent of his creativity. Unfortunately it was in the wrong direction, but Mario Balotelli spurned the one on one chance past the post, and the rest of the half passed with little imagination or invention, apart from one really silly moment when Mata finally reacted to Yaya Toure's general peskiness, and was promptly rewarded with a yellow.
The second half immediately sparked greater interest, as Mancini hauled Balotelli off and sent Gareth Barry on his place. While this looked like a defensive sub, it actually allowed Toure, as City's most promising player on the pitch, to advance further forward. The opening stanza of the second half followed the general pattern of City domination and Chelsea countering (to little effect).
Essien was taken off for Raul Meireles, who played decently enough, and this pushed Lampard into the attacking trio. At the time this made a fair bit of sense, as the Ghanian would secure the defence and add a bit more bite in the pivot.
The momentum of the match suddenly shifted when Chelsea won a corner, where Torres and David Luiz both battled to keep the ball in the area, allowing Gary Cahill to strike, albeit the ball hitting Toure in the process, but Chelsea didn't care. They were in an extremely rare position of being ahead on Manchester City's own turf, and the Etihad was quiet as a result. Having ended their unbeaten run back in December, were Chelsea about to end their unbeaten run at home too?
The backline was doing it's best to achieve that. Cahill and Luiz were key, as well as bringing about the lead, were also doing a good job of maintaining it, against strong City attackers. The potency of the City attack was about to be increased, when Carlos Tevez would return from exile. The forward would replace Nigel De Jong, and immediately looked to play between the gap opening up on Chelsea's right hand side, near Jose Bosingwa. Any Chelsea fan who didn't feel a pang of fear at the sight of last season's top scorer looking to attack Chelsea's flimsy Portugese defender is a liar.
And sure enough. It took the arrival of another forward in Edin Dzeko to break through a deep Chelsea defence, and assisted by Michael Essien's complete brain fart, City got back in the game by lieu of a cheap penalty. The tide had shifted, and the introduction of Didier Drogba for Fernando Torres did little to stem the flow. City pressured, and piled attackers forward, and were rewarded for their endeavor with brilliant build up play from Tevez and a superb finish from Nasri. 2-1, and it would remain that way in the dying minutes.
It's easy to blame Di Matteo for throwing away the game, but as Villas-Boas learnt, sometimes players do really silly things when they come as subs. It's not the manager's fault, and little mistakes can really affect the momentum of a match. The initial starting lineup kept City at bay for quite a long time, and that's something the Italian should get due credit for. It would be nice in a weird sort of way to be able to look back at this game and say that we should be winning these games. If we were still at title-winning level, those kinds of thoughts are plausible. However, we're not anywhere near capable of winning the title now, but rather we're contenders in the race for the Champions League places. Games against similar teams are the ones we need to be winning, and lucky we're going to find out if Di Matteo and his Chelsea are capable of doing exactly that this weekend.
Roberto Di Matteo:
We are disappointed, we did well to almost get something out of it, we knew it would be tough. I thought we defended very well, I thought the penalty was a harsh decision but it did hit him on the arm, it's a setback but we look forward to the future. Two weeks ago we were seven points behind third place and now we're six points behind, so we need to look at these things. We're going in the right direction and we've proved we can compete with the best teams in the league, but we did well tonight and we're disappointed we didn't get at least a point."I was frustrated in the first half because we didn't take our chances and at this stage of the season you cannot afford to do that but I felt we deserved to win," he said.
The result is significant and will give us a big lift. We used a lot of energy winning these three points now we must recover for another tough game at Stoke on Saturday night.