A trip to Manchester City was going to really test the mettle of a team that was showing signs of improvement in their recent four games under Robbie Di Matteo. The realists amongst us were looking for a point, the dreamers were hoping that this would be the great leap forward and the eternally pessimistic were hoping Stoke and Everton might limit the damage.
Well here we are, it’s 10pm on a Wednesday night and Stoke did their best, Everton, a team we often struggle with have again done us no favours, subsiding to Arsenal after sinking without trace against Liverpool a week ago, and we’re adrift in fifth place and feeling somewhat uncomfortable as the fetid breath of the chasing Scouse and Geordie nations, combining in the cold night air to form a toxic miasma that would stun a horse, seeps over our shoulder and into the nostrils.
(No! Wait! King Kenny’s Clown Car has just exploded. The Anfield Hokey-Cokey is in full swing. Some want him in, some want him out and some just want to shake him all about.)
It didn’t really work in the end did it? At times the effort to absorb and then build quickly on the break looked promising. But time and again the chaps lacked composure and control in the final third.
As the first half ticked away Chelsea, while not looking dangerous seemed to have solved the early problems posed by Nasri down the left and looked comfortable if a little too deep-lying at times. The early alarms, including an absolute howler of a pass by Lampard straight across his own half into the path of Balotelli and a lob by Nasri that hit the bar, had been succeeded by a midfield battle where Chelsea tried to keep their shape and press onto the ball if City slowed the play down and City tried to work up the pitch and throw it wide once they’d sucked the full-backs in.
This involved a real effort on the part of Torres and Meireles who were patrolling across City’s defence and too often the midfield dropped too deep leaving space for City to build in. But saying that, and despite having Nasri, Silva, Aguero and Balotelli pushing up onto the back four, by and large Chelsea kept their composure and discipline and were nowhere near as easy to walk through as in previous months.
But, and like buttocks fed exclusively on junk food and lard, this but was to get bigger and bigger in the second half, Chelsea just didn’t play enough controlled possession football and were not accurate enough on the break-out.
When Mancini put Barry on for Balotelli at half time, it was not a backward step but had the effect of penning Chelsea into their own half. The extra midfielder meant a team struggling for accuracy at times saw even less possession. The lack of movement and quality of pass through midfield has bedevilled the team for much of the season. It was too much to expect that it could be put right in less than half a dozen games. City played a more intense pressing game and Chelsea were too easily squeezed off the ball in these situations. Intent as they were in denying City space in the last third, Chelsea were far less intense in the press and thus did not get possession back easily.
I think it was almost their first foray up the pitch in the second half that yielded a corner. When Ivanovic had been forced off after 20 minutes Lady Luck appeared to be treating us and our team with the usual disdain. Suddenly she appeared to smile. A corner was half-cleared, Luiz got his body in to ensure Barry didn’t make clean contact, Cahill whacked the loose ball goal-wards and Toure (the Kolo edition), deflected it past a “despairing” (for custodians always despair) Joe Hart.
And thus we dared to hope and at the same time succumbed to fear. The shovels were out and the trenches deepened another couple of feet. The pattern of the half didn’t really change but Mancini altered his shape again removing De Jong and introducing Tevez. (His introduction would have been along the lines of “This is Mr Carlos Tevez, he has a tendency to homesickness”.) While City certainly didn’t panic, they didn’t immediately create any real danger. Drogba came on for Torres with Merieles having been replaced by Essien before the goal. While Torres appeared unhappy, these two had certainly had to do an awful lot of running and so I can’t really criticise either move. And the second half had seen very little decent service to Torres, well any service really, so the chance to knock it long to Drogba was in some ways an attractive proposition.
And Lady Luck? Well the events of the 77th minute proved that she had not smiled and was merely grimacing as the result of a bilious attack. Essien decided to block a Zabaleta shot inside the box by the time honoured method of turning his back, fair enough a man needs to protect the family jewels and the face (in that order) but inexplicably threw up his arms (cue a gag about not having eaten them in the first place) and so gave away the penalty, which Aguero comfortably converted.
It was a shot of adrenalin straight into City’s system, while Chelsea looked like they’d just stood on the shovel and taken the handle straight in the kisser.
A long, arduous seven minutes passed before a Nasri, Tevez one-two left Lampard trailing the Frenchman in the box as he chipped Cech and found the corner. Time to just stay down on the canvas. There were one or two moments where it looked as though Drogba might cause a spot of bother, but we all knew the game was up.
What to make of it all? Well there was no faulting the effort and hopefully the fragile confidence we saw returning won’t be too heavily dented. The team does look more organised and cohesive defensively. But there was a noticeable lack of steadiness in possession.
City have a good squad and over the season have been a very good team and are unbeaten at home. But while I can’t say the result is a shock, I do question whether a midfield with the likes of Mikel, Lampard, Mata, Ramires and Meireles should retain so little possession. Are Chelsea that short of technique? Or is it down to movement, confidence, understanding? I think it was always going to be a game where we ceded ground and possession, but we seemed hurried and hustled too often for my liking. And that has been a trend during the season, which must be addressed but will take time and perhaps changes in personnel to reverse.
I’m disappointed. We gave up a lead. But on the other hand given the past few months was it realistic to expect anything else? So let’s end by accentuating the positives.
Luiz had a great game I thought. Composed and unhurried, he certainly seemed to exude a calmness during some of the wilder phases. He was also disciplined. Cahill put in another good performance and they did pretty well as a pair considering the pressure.
Mikel was good, particularly in the first half when Chelsea were able to break out. He made some very good runs forward in possession, the like of which we have rarely seen. Let’s hope this trend to get him forward more continues. The second half he was less in evidence but was getting through a shift in the trenches. He certainly seemed willing to make the angle on plenty of occasions and should have been used more as a pivot in retaining the ball.
Torres ran miles for the team. There just weren’t the opportunities to repeat Sunday’s goal scoring feats. And City’s strikers didn’t score either in open play with a hell of a lot more opportunity.
I wouldn’t single anyone out for criticism, though I worry that Essien is struggling for form. We could have done without him giving away a penalty, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
We are what we all know, deep down, is the case and that is a less than elite side. There is still a long way to go in getting the side playing such that they could match City toe to toe. We are still less than the sum of the parts, even if a few of those parts are not at their previous best.
Let us all seek solace in the good book.
“We are hard pressed but never crushed. Perplexed but not in despair.” And having finished with a biblical quote (2 Corinthians 4:8), the Flying Burritos will play out with an old gospel standard.
The press reports
The Guardian, Daniel Taylor: “For long spells the quality was low, from both sides. City, however, probably deserved to win on the balance of play and their sheer perseverance. Nasri was the most creative player on the pitch, hitting the crossbar with a first-half shot, and Yaya Touré was a key figure, driving forward from midfield.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “City really went for it. They had to. This was kitchen-sink time. Carlos Tevez, on as a sub, inevitably played a part, rolling a perfect pass into the box for Samir Nasri, timing his run superbly, to lift the ball elegantly over the diving Petr Cech. The Etihad was in total ecstasy, barring the bemused Chelsea section.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “The Chelsea team looked different again last night with Frank Lampard deployed deeper and Raul Meireles pushed up closer in behind Torres. Ramires was on the right wing in the position usually occupied by Daniel Sturridge, who stayed on the bench. There was no sign of the injured John Terry on the bench.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea took a second-half lead but against a dominant Man City side, couldn’t hold on, conceding the winner with five minutes left on the clock. After a first half in which the home side had hit the bar and spurned other chances while the visitors hadn’t gone close, it was Gary Cahill with his second goal in two matches who gave us a lead contrary to the balance of the game. However Sergio Aguero levelled the score from the penalty spot after Michael Essien handled before Samir Nasri scored the winner.”