Monday evening in London and the Barclay’s Premier League’s runaway leaders come to town. Yes the final game of the weekend and surely one of the biggest fixtures of the season so far, as Manchester City brought their riches, and unbeaten Premier League record to Stamford Bridge to face off against Chelsea. The encounter was given added spice by the fact that Andre Villas Boas, Chelsea’s young Portuguese manager, brought in over the summer to replace Carlo Ancelotti, has been under growing pressure after making the worst ever start to a Premier League season since the Abramovic era began, almost a decade ago. The Chelsea manager has seen his team lose four times in the league in the first fifteen games, and has been criticised for employing a high defensive line that doesn’t suit his players, in contrast to Manchester City who had failed to win only twice this season, and had not been beaten at all, domestically.
So to the action, and it started with a bang! Manchester City came flying out of the blocks, and were a goal up inside a couple of minutes, Sergio Aguero cutting inside from the right, beating two and threading a sublime ball through to Mario Balotelli who converted, in typically nonchalant style, pushing the ball past Cech and rolling it into the back of the net. The goal looked to have set up another convincing away win for the Citizens, as they proceeded to dominate the next 25 minutes or so, moving the ball around crisply and causing Chelsea’s defence all sorts of problems, Aguero shooting wide in the 14th minute, after a fine run. City were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty, moments later when David Silva looked to be tripped by Jose Bosingwa, Silva fell theatrically though and Bosingwa’s challenge was half hearted enough for referee Clattenburg to wave play on.
Shortly after this, and with the high defensive line abandoned for a deeper lying defensive strategy, Chelsea began to get a foothold in the game. Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge, undoubtedly Chelsea’s players of the season so far, began to get hold of the ball and bring others into the game, gradually dragging the Blues further and further into proceedings. Then on 34 minutes, it was Sturridge who got round Clichy on the right, to cross for the late arriving Raul Mereiles to volley past Joe Hart, levelling the score at 1-1. Chelsea have yet to see the best of Mereiles, but in recent weeks he has been chosen as a replacement for Lampard, and the former Liverpool man proved his worth in this game with an excellent all round performance, capped with a vital equaliser.
The second half saw a much less mobile, less fluent Manchester City, they never really showed the class that had been on display in the opening half an hour, whereas Chelsea seemed to grow in strength and confidence as the game went on. The match was pushed further in Chelsea’s direction after 57 minutes, when Gael Clichy picked up an uncharacteristic second yellow card for a mistimed tackle on Ramires, who was looking to break from midfield. Faced with more than half an hour to play with a man short, Roberto Mancini’s men dug in and Chelsea found it hard to break them down, especially when Silva and Aguero were replaced by more defensively minded players.
In a game of few chances, it took a penalty decision and a Chelsea legend to finally swing the match for the Blues. With slightly less than ten minutes to go Sturridge’s shot from the right hand corner of the box was blocked by the hand of City’s Joleon Lescott, Mark Clattenburg had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and it was the correct decision. Frank Lampard, left on the bench at the start of the game, not for the first time this season, and rumoured to be one of the established stars that Villas Boas is keen to move on in the near future, stepped up to take the kick, and duly buried it, to send Stamford Bridge wild in the aisles. Lampard, while 33, still looks to be in very good physical shape, and has the commitment to the game, and to Chelsea, that could prove invaluable to Villas Boas should he choose to utilise it this season.
City never looked like coming back, and in fact managed to waste most of the last ten minutes plus stoppage time by giving away needless free kicks through their frustration. Having been lucky not to lose at Anfield a couple of weeks previously, knocked out of the Champions League last week, and losing their unbeaten record this week, perhaps they will not prove to be the all-conquering force that many pundits had believed they would be this season. They face Arsenal at Eastlands on Sunday in a game that now takes on huge significance.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are back in the hunt, having cut the deficit to just seven points behind the leaders, and opening up the title race again, at this relatively early stage of the season. Three Premier League wins in a row and Champions League qualification have taken the pressure off Villas Boas for the time being. However, questions remain about the viability of his high-line strategy, which he has abandoned in crunch games this season, and about the harmony within the squad, with many of the senior players seemingly unimpressed by the man from Portugal. Will he be allowed to clear out the old guard and bring in the new, or will player power once again win the day at Stamford Bridge? Only time will tell.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 14/12/11.