Chelsea pulled off an unexpected victory over title rivals Manchester City on Monday night to move level on points with Manuel Pellegrini’s men. Jose Mourinho got his tactics and team selection spot on as Branislav Ivanovic fired in a stunning winner to bring City’s impressive unbeaten home record to an end, but ‘the happy one’ has once more played down his team’s title credentials, claiming “The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump. Maybe next season we can race.” Both teams are now level on 53 points but City maintain a far superior goal difference with Arsenal still leading the pack on 55 points, with each team having fourteen games left to play.
Many fans were surprised to see the much-maligned Martin Demichelis line up in midfield for City in a 4-1-3-2 formation, but the Argentine was forced in after Fernandinho picked up an injury. The team line-ups were also surprising in that there were more Serbian players on the pitch than English, and it was one of them, Ivanovic, who made the difference on the night.
There was a scare for Chelsea within a minute of the match kicking off after a loose ball was played back to Petr Cech and was chased down by Jesus Navas in a moment reminiscent of the Fernando Torres goal which settled the reverse fixture earlier in the season. The match continued in a furious manner with Chelsea immediately launching a counter-attack; it was to set a pattern for the entire match. Mourinho had his notebook out early with ‘the Beast’ Alvaro Negredo shrugging off the challenge of Gary Cahill before blazing high and wide of Cech’s top left corner.
In terms of territory, the match was fairly even, but City dominated the early chances and the possession throughout. That is not to say that Chelsea ‘parked the bus’ as they had in previous matches against the top sides this season; on the contrary, Chelsea streamed forward whenever they had the chance, with an attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Willian and Ramires causing no end of problems for the sluggish Demichelis.
Ramires had a goal (correctly) chalked out for offside following a teasing run from Hazard. Later, an Aleksandar Kolarov cross was inches out of the reach of Yaya Toure’s outstretched foot, and David Silva just failed to make clean contact with the ball from the corner of the six-yard box, and anyone expecting the tempo of the game to slow couldn’t have been more wrong.
Samuel Eto’o was (and is) still looking for his first away goal in Chelsea colors and tried to create it for himself, cutting in from the left before curling a powerful shot straight into the grateful arms of Joe Hart. David Luiz and the recently returned Nemanja Matic were impressive in their holding midfield roles, with the former man-marking David Silva effectively and forcing the Spanish playmaker out wide.
Edin Dzeko worked himself into a promising position but bent his shot well wide, but the best chance of the half came just before the half hour mark. Chelsea had a fluid four-on-one counter attack in their favour, but Ramires was unable to beat Hart and when the ball came back down, Willian scythed an audacious bicycle kick high over the bar instead of touching it to Eto’o, who would have had a tap-in.
They didn’t have to wait long to break the deadlock. Hazard, who has matured under Mourinho from a luxury showpony to a skilful and tireless workhorse, made a jinking run in behind the defence and found Ramires inside the box. The Brazilian’s shot was blocked by a desperate head-first dive from Vincent Kompany but it bounced to the edge of the box where it was met by the onrushing Ivanovic.
The Serb, who has built a reputation for scoring crucial goals, took one look up before arrowing a powerful half-volley across Joe Hart and into the bottom-left corner. He was booked shortly after to the disgust of Mourinho, but Chelsea kicked on from there with Eto’o striking the bar after running on to a cross which eluded everyone. With Hart stranded, the Cameroon icon may have been better advised to go for placement over power, but the chance came to him quickly.
The second half was just as frantic and Chelsea hit the woodwork twice more, first with Matic’s 25-yard rocket which hit the intersection of post and bar, and then Gary Cahill’s header which dropped onto the post from a late corner. City had struggled to get back into the game but they had chances of their own, Cech superbly tipping Kolarov’s free kick over the bar and Stevan Jovetic, an impressive substitute, stinging the keeper’s hands with a powerful shot from the edge of the area. Matija Nastasic could have been sent off late on for bringing down Oscar on the halfway line as Chelsea broke away, but Mourinho’s protestations were short-lived as the Blues claimed a famous win.
The result means the title race hots up even further with two points separating the top three, but City are still favourites to take the trophy come May. Arsenal may be top but have a horrific spell of fixtures coming up, and Chelsea’s occasional lack of goals could cost them dearly against the City scoresheet-bothering juggernaut. Don’t bet against it going down to the final day.