Manchester City v Chelsea in late February: at the start of the season this looked like a potential Championship decider. Not a bit of it. Sir Alex Ferguson and his rampant Manchester United had other ideas and have apparently taken this year’s Premier League title out of the grasp of the two richest clubs in the top flight.
So instead there was pride to play for after disappointing campaigns at home and in Europe for both teams in blue. Or perhaps the key thing was to avoid the kind of defeat that would lead to ridicule.
Well in that case, Chelsea failed badly. They lost 2-0 and suddenly a top-four spot looks far from nailed on.
Rafael Benitez has attracted sympathy and loathing in equal measure since taking on a chalice you would call poisoned were it not for the attractive remuneration on offer for the position. The 52-year-old took the reins of Chelsea in abrupt circumstances last November when Roberto di Matteo had the Blues handily placed just four points behind United.
But this defeat, in which the Chelsea midfield was a confused, tactical muddle throughout, has left that gap to United at 19 points now. It’s a yawning chasm, and they should be an awful lot closer.
What’s strange is that Benitez was initially quick to identify Chelsea’s midfield inadequacies. With the team failing to link defence to attack in the way they had done in the past through Michael Essien and Michael Ballack, he shifted David Luiz up from his accustomed centre-back role. It was an experiment that worked.
But Luiz soon found himself back in the centre of defence, a move perhaps expedited by John Terry’s knee injury and the need to have Branislav Ivanovic at right-back.
Terry was available again at the Etihad but Benitez suggested the 32-year-old was not “fresh” enough to start after his exertions against Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, which raises the questions as to why Terry had played in that match at all.
And so it was that Luiz was once again at the centre of defence, leaving Mikel John Obi and Frank Lampard as the two holding midfielders – and they were simply run ragged by Jack Rodwell, Javi
Garcia and Yaya Toure.
As exciting as it must have been for Chelsea fans to see Rodwell – in his first start for City since September – show such poise, this was also a rare bad performance from Lampard, who suddenly looked every one of his 35 years. And he made matters worse by missing a penalty.
But Lampard is so much better when he is allowed to play as an advanced midfielder, and he has been Chelsea’s best player of late. You could forgive him this lapse. On the other hand, the Nigerian
Mikel was fresh from helping his team win an Africa Cup of Nations notable for its lack of quality, and was playing in his best position. Down the years, he has turned in many mediocre performances
for Chelsea, and this was another one to add to that pile.
Early in the second half, Roberto Mancini withdrew Rodwell and introduced another striker, Carlos Tevez. If it was because he felt he could continue to control the midfield this way, he was proved
right when Yaya Toure sidestepped Mikel and Lampard at the edge of the area and curled his shot beyond Petr Cech.
Benítez was then playing catch-up. In the space of 13 minutes, Mikel, Lampard and Eden Hazard were all substituted, Ramires changing position twice. But the tinkering didn’t get Chelsea their equaliser. Instead, Sergio Aguero exploited Chelsea’s general lack of fluency and solidity to tee up the second goal, cutting in off the wing to set up Tevez and that was that.
City did well, but that gap to United remains at 12 points, and it’s hard to imagine how they can eat into it. For starters, the Red Devils’ next two league fixtures are kind ones: both at home, against
Norwich and Reading.
Chelsea’s concern is not so much that Tottenham could take third place off them with a win at West Ham on Monday night, but that the team currently in fifth, Arsenal, are just two points behind them.
Arsenal’s two shattering Cup defeats at the Emirates left confidence low but the Gunners had just enough in the tank to see off Aston Villa on Saturday. Now if they can somehow win at White Hart
Lane on Sunday, Arsene Wenger may yet emerge with some credit this season.