Sunday, February 1, 2015

KINGS ROAD COUNTERCULTURE

Fernandinho put in a Man of the Match performance
Coming away from Stamford Bridge with a point, having come out on top in every aspect of the game except actually winning it, should not be scoffed at. For those stating it was the big opportunity missed, I beg to differ. An opportunity, perhaps, but it is diffcult to imagine there will not be more moments to take advantage of in the next three months. Even in the light of twenty four hours to digest the ebb and flow of a fascinating contest, the word "missed" might still not be the most apt.

Did anyone expect Manchester United to lose at Wigan and concede a ridiculously careless 4-4 draw with Everton three years ago? Did anyone believe Liverpool would self-combust against Demba Ba and the gathered might of Crystal Palace a year ago? Football continues to enthral and surprise and will no doubt do so again before the end of this campaign. We just don't know how and who it will affect.

City have plenty of previous on the catching up leaders against the odds front and, even if key players are three years older than the first time they managed it, they can plainly still do it. As some have begun to hint, a side whose core has has been together for four years, will soon necessarily begin the process of overhaul. But here at a darkened and atmospheric Stamford Bridge, it was City's elder statesmen carrying the game to Chelsea for long periods of a tight physical battle.

With Chelsea backpedalling to such a degree in the second half that they looked like the away team, City's territorial dominance was not matched with really clear cut chances. When chances of sorts did occur, they fell to an Aguero in improving form but not quite back to the full coruscating net-blasting impishness of pre-Christmas. Two other presentable opportunities fell to Fernandinho, one of the side's less potent threats in front of goal. The first he skewed just wide, then met a second half cross with a downward header so ill directed, it nearly burrowed underground before bouncing over the bar. The evening was, soon afterwards, done.

City, though, had much to be pleased about. Dominance is a fake friend when the opposition choose to reduce their input to stalling tactics, but in doing this, far from simply preserving their five point advantage, Chelsea were admitting they could not do any better.

As statements of intent for budding Premier League champions go, it didn't exactly shout superlatives from the main stand roof.

Pellegrini had clearly done his homework. Bacary Sagna, a surprise inclusion on the right of defence, had his best game in a blue shirt, raiding willingly up the flank and partnering the surprisingly effective Navas in subduing much of the obvious threat posed by Eden Hazard. Tellingly, when Hazard did free himself to get on the end of Ivanovic's crossfield pass, his cleverly volleyed cross back across the City area - taken early to wrong foot the onrushing defenders - resulted in the opening goal, with Kompany again looking suspect as he made it into position but retracted his right leg at the last moment. Whether trying to avoid knocking it into his own net, or uncertain whether he'd reach it or not, with Remy right behind him, Kompany really had to attempt to get his foot on it in one form or another.

This was a shame both individually and collectively, as both the captain and the side in general had been performing much better than of late. With Navas also finally pounding for the byline instead of circulating in that infernal cutting back loop that he sometimes seems trapped in, he was City's most effective attacking threat and, with Sagna, provided City with a strong outlet down the right.

Fernandinho in the centre was immense, shutting out the threat from Matic and making up for Fernando's lack of zip. Matic is an immense player and can run riot through the central areas if left unchecked. Much like the missing Yaya Touré, if allowed to boss the middle areas, he will do just that with consummate ease. It is curious that City's raids on the Portuguese Liga for defensive midfielders has brought Garcia and now Fernando northwards but never alighted on Matic, easily the best of the lot. With Clattenburg generously allowing a string of his fouls to go unpunished, whilst booking Fernando for leaving a loose leg hanging, Matic could maintain a robust presence and City needed all of Fernandinho's wiry energy to stunt the big Serb's progress.

With Milner providing his usual spirit on the other flank and David Silva desperately foraging for any tiny spaces that he might be able to open up, City bossed the game territorially, had the better of the possession stats, provided almost all of the game's shots on goal and - in their substitutions - were clearly the only side trying to win it as the game grew old.

One man's handywork
Five points remain between the two sides, still a mere trifle at this stage. With Touré and Nasri to return and the firepower of Bony to be added to this side, there is no reason to doubt that City can continue to provide a strong challenge in the coming weeks. Chelsea, stuck in a habit of playing the same side each week, may well rue this later on, if and when tired limbs begin to give up on them or loss of form finally affects some of their more important players.

All to play for, certainly. Chelsea have the points advantage but a supposedly record global audience watching on tv around the planet, will have noted which side was hungrier, which side had the greater cohesion and which side came closest to winning this breathless and compelling top of the table clash.

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