Within 20 minutes, it was apparent what kind of game we were going to get at the Etihad. Manchester City were in complete control of the game, with Chelsea consistently pinned back and squandering possession whenever they went to break out. Someone had to be in control, since Mike Dean certainly wasn't -- the referee was wildly inconsistent in deciding what was a foul and what wasn't letting some blatantly illegal challenges go unpunished while dishing out bookings for tackles which looked mostly innocuous.
With Dean behaving erratically, the obvious plan went a little like this:
- Prevent them from scoring.
- Bait them into a red card.
- Grab a goal while their defence was adjusting.
- Hold out to win.
That things fell apart at step four is extremely disappointing (and the equaliser came in the manner that it did heartbreaking), but it shouldn't take away from the fact that we did very well to get to where we did. Manchester City away is the most difficult domestic fixture on our schedule, that we came away with a point a very credible result. But it could and should have been more. Here's how it all played out.
Chelsea couldn't hold the ball. They tried -- sort of -- and simply had no luck. Willian was the only real outlet when possession was gained, and as soon as he turned in midfield he either gave the ball away with a weak pass or was wiped out by one of a dozen or so Stoke-like challenges (irony!) in the middle of the pitch.
Meanwhile, City were creating approximately nothing despite spending the entire first half taking corner kicks. Their only shot on target in the opening period was a weak Yaya Touré header that was well held by Thibaut Courtois, and the only times they even hinted at a threat was when we failed to clear properly. It was all very easy for the Blues, even if in return we had no attacking presence whatsoever. Yes, Diego Costa might have scored, but his opportunity was the result of a botched header by Fernandinho rather than anything useful we did.
Step one complete, then.
By the interval, Dean had issued six yellow cards, four to City players. The goal early on in the second was obvious: do anything and everything to bait the players on yellows into doing something stupid. And while Costa didn't score, he was the obvious choice to get that done. And so, after a scare that was dealt with by the combined powers of Ramires and Courtois (and a substitution which brought André Schürrle and John Obi Mikel into the match), the centre forward struck, squaring off against the already-booked Pablo Zabeleta and provoking a confrontation that resulted in both players seeing yellow.
And so City were down to ten. Step two complete.
Schürrle had been brought on to inject some pace into the attack, and that's exactly what he did, but the star performer in the goal was Eden Hazard, who sparked the attack with a magnificent sweeping ball out to the left flank before getting it back off Costa and playing in a first-time cross for Schürrle to sweep in at the far post. Chelsea 1-0 Manchester City. Step three complete.
There was only one thing left to worry about, which was an equaliser. And the hosts really didn't seem very likely to get it. They were hitting the heads against the Chelsea wall over and over, looking marvelously impotent in the process, and as time wound down the Blues looked set to claim all three points. Costa very nearly sealed the deal with an effort from the edge of the box that beat Joe Hart and cannoned back off the post. All was looking pretty good.
And then Frank Lampard showed up. Somehow, the Chelsea legend was taking the field against us somehow he was driving City forward, somehow he was escaping Branislav Ivanovic's attentions and -- what are you doing Schürrle?! Don't let them cross from there! -- somehow he scored the equaliser in the 85th minute, squeezing a first time shot past John Terry and inside Courtois' near post from James Milner's teasing delivery. Step four: Oops.
In fairness, Lampard looked just as heartbroken as we all felt, refusing to celebrate and then going to the away fans after the match. But that doesn't stop it from feeling like half a dozen kicks to the groin in quick succession. The goal gave City belief and we were arguably fortunate not to have conceded again, but before long it seemed that both teams had come to an agreement not to bother with anything but the draw.
Two points lost. It's not a nice feeling.
PS: No, I haven't been vomiting. Why would you ask that? Those sounds from the toilet were ... uh ... writing. Yes, that's the sound I make when I'm writing a match report. It's part of the creative process and definitely not vomiting. SHUT UP YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ART.