London: With the artistic brilliance of the new-look Chelsea to contend with, not to mention the tenacity and street wisdom of their cross-city rivals from Old Trafford, Manchester City’s Premier League title defence is sure to be fraught with difficulties this season.
That they end game-week eight of the season in decent enough shape – tied with United on 18 points, four away from Chelsea – owes much to the super-sub who would dearly love to avoid wearing his tracksuit for the first hour of every game, Edin Dzeko.
The Bosnian striker – in case you’ve forgotten – scored the first of those two extraordinary stoppage-time goals that rescued the title for City on the final day of the last season. He was a substitute then, and it’s a role he’s had to get used to again this season, with Roberto Mancini prone to start with two out of Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez.
There’s no question that Balotelli hasn’t fired properly for some time, and is often looking to pick a fight with someone. It doesn’t seem logical that he should be playing ahead of Dzeko, as he did on Saturday at West Brom. But Mancini regards Dzeko as a more useful substitute.
The issue is very similar to the Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer situation at Manchester United in the late 1990s. Famously in the Champions League final of 1999 at the Nou Camp, the baby-faced Norwegian was thrust into the action with just 10 minutes to go. After Teddy Sheringham had levelled the score against Bayern Munich, Solksjaer duly supplied a last-gasp winner.
But did Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly grant the hero in Barcelona a regular starting role the following season? No, he did not. Mancini finds himself in a similarly difficult quandary: he knows that in statistical terms, Dzeko’s conversion rate – the amount of goals he scores from the chances he gets – warrant a regular starting place.
And yet, he also knows that Dzeko is at his most effective when he can come charging on like an unleashed tiger, fired up and eager to prove a point. Would he have that cutting edge in the crucial, final moments if he had been there from the start? Not necessarily.
West Brom had a 100% home record before the game started, a one-man advantage on 23 minutes when James Milner was sent off, and a one-goal advantage when Shane Long scored on 67 minutes.
So along came Dzeko, replacing the excellent Gareth Barry, to head home a Tevez free-kick before driving Aguero’s accurate pass into the corner of the net. It was a pretty fortunate result for City, who were pushing so hard for goals at the end that they left some big holes in defence for Peter Odemwingie to exploit. His intelligent combinations with Romelu Lukaku could have easily led to a late goal or two for West Brom to celebrate, but somehow City came away from the Hawthorns with three very valuable points.
There was less drama for United at home to Stoke, though Wayne Rooney’s early own goal, and some subsequent nervy defending suggested a difficult afternoon. Once Rooney scored at the right end, calm was restored on the pitch and a comfortable 4-2 win followed. What followed off the pitch was a bizarre stand-off between Sir Alex Ferguson and his senior pro Rio Ferdinand over the defender’s decision not to wear a t-shirt promoting an anti-racism pressure group.
Ferguson is a control freak. If he gets a question he doesn’t expect at a press conference he bans the journalist who asks it from attending further press conferences. If he goes on record saying the players “will wear the t-shirt” he expects them all to do so. Except for Ferdinand it’s difficult. His brother was racially abused by Chelsea’s John Terry last season and he’s not the only one who feels that wearing a t-shirt is a feeble gesture when something more draconian is required.
Chelsea won their Saturday match by the same scoreline, but as it was an away fixture at Tottenham – and given that they were 2-1 down until Juan Mata sparked them into life in the final half-hour – the sense of achievement would have been stronger. Andre Villas-Boas was the coach at Chelsea when Mata arrived at Stamford Bridge at a cost of £26m from Valencia last August.
Now, AVB had to watch his protege score two clinical goals from the opposition dugout – the second of those, the one that gave the Blues the all-important lead – came on the back of a wonderful move featuring Oscar and a final, glorious assist from Eden Hazard.
A win at Norwich would have allowed Arsenal to finish the weekend fourth in the league; instead they surprisingly lost. That left Everton in possession of that important psychological foothold. However, Everton would certainly have hoped for more than a draw at bottom club QPR, who notched up only their second point of the season.
It’s going to be another tough season for Mark Hughes in that boisterous corner of west London. He’s got a very good squad at his disposal, and frankly should be well clear of relegation difficulties. There are very few people in football who rate the QPR manager highly.