Modern football is simultaneously a spectacularly feathered bird of many interesting hues and
The inevitable fall-out to a lively encounter between City and Chelsea, with the spoils of war rightfully carried off by the visiting Londoners, has been interesting to say the least. From the home fans self-combusting with ire that this that and the other was done incorrectly and that the end of the world must be nigh, to the soothsayers returning José Mourinho to Mount Zion and the Pantheon of Football Genii, the air has been thick and acrid with loud words and big ideas.
As ever, somewhere in amongst all the froth and the bluster lies the truth.
Only twice under the still fresh reign of Manuel Pellegrini have City looked hopelessly exposed, against Bayern Munchen in the Champions League and in this latest enthralling encounter with Chelsea. On both occasions, City remained steadfast in their belief that two upfront is the answer to all questions, whether they are being put to them in guttural Bavarian German or with a hybrid Cockney/Portuguese accent. On each occasion, City’s middle orders gradually became swamped and the home side were given a severe to medium run-around.
Against Chelsea the effect was worsened somewhat by the absence of the metronome Fernandinho, his replacement the pedestrian Martin Demichelis starting competently enough with some nice touches and clean tackles, but soon after midway through the first period, becoming more and more isolated as Yaya Touré believed himself to be the evening's superhuman. The Ivorian may have had good reason. With Chelsea beginning the game cautiously, City had a number of chances as the Elephant of Bondoukou arrived snorting a nd steaming at the edge of the box and traversed into it on a variety of dangerous forays that could have brought the opening goal. Had he managed to get a studded boot on to the end of a remarkably accurate Aleksander Kolarov cross, it would have been City in the lead and perhaps a different game unfolding.
This did not happen and, as Chelsea realised there was space to move into, so they occupied it. The midfield five, including an impressive threesome of ex-Benfica men in David Luiz, Ramires and a very mobile Matic making his first full appearance, did their job of harrying, closing and breaking at speed and in numbers excellently well. With Hazard’s poise and Willian’s thrusting energy, the away side’s middle orders possessed every element needed to pick City’s pockets with relative ease. Bayern had done the same to even greater effect at the tail end of 2013, their movement and drive too much for an understaffed City midfield.
The naysayers and wall beaters, in the calmness of daylight, might well want to review the fact that, even on what was obviously an off day for the home side, despite bars and posts being hit with worrying frequency by Chelsea, City were within two magnificent Peter Cech saves (from David Silva’s free kick and Stevan Jovetic’s piledriver) from drawing a late equaliser from the game. As undeserved as it would have been, the Blues would have come out of the match battered but intact and we might have been spared some of the masterful press headlines of exploding title races and blasted certainties. Whoever clears up the mess after a title race has exploded, has his work cut out this morning, that's for sure. It's everywhere. Up the walls. Everywhere.
Chelsea now return to the capital with renewed hope and belief that they can compete on an even keel for this hotly disputed 2013-14 title. Mourinho, master of the quote, purveyor of the look, flapper of the arm (more imaginary cards than your local paper shop) and waver of the leg, will wake this morning knowing that his amusing side show has once again had a meaningful effect, despite the rudimentary aspects of its introduction and the base form of its utilization. For beneath that scowling palid exterior that he seems to have fostered since he was last on the touchlines of Old Albion (how can a spell in Spain make one go pale?), aside from the unnecessarily disrespectful soundbites about Scottish kitmen and their garbled team talks, lies a sharp tactical brain that has soaked up the lessons of working with some of football’s greatest managers.
Whilst Pellegrini continues to play a straight faced straight bat, it is time now for City to show their mettle. With Fernandinho, Nasri and Aguero absent and Negredo nursing a damaged shoulder back to life, City need to push on as beatable middle order opponents line up for the upcoming fixtures.
The next league fixtures involve Norwich, Sunderland, Stoke, Villa, Hull and Fulham in that order. Although the small matter of a League Cup Final with Sunderland, a 5th round FA Cup match with Chelsea and a Champions League Round of 16 game with Barcelona must all be played amongst these league fixtures,there is every chance that City will emerge at the top of the table by mid March.
As the temperature rises and the doubters’ voices become ever more shrill, the quiet Chilean will again be confronted with quotes about being the “nearly man” in possession of the “near-empty trophy cabinet”. City were never infallible and are not now suddenly broken, just as Chelsea have always been a contender and are not now anything different. Football’s twenty-four-seven circus will see to it that more gas and hot air is spent over the next few days concerning this smoke-filled, dangerously unstable title race .
We will watch and read and cogitate with interest.and when the beast has ceased to peck furiously at its own behind, we will once again sit back and admire its beautiful feathers.
A version of this article has already appeared on ESPN's pages