The circus surrounding the appointment of Rafa Benitez as Chelsea’s interim manager overshadowed yesterday’s game between the reigning European Champions and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.
In some ways, it was welcome distraction from the at times turgid football played on the park as the ‘flair’ players on both sides failed to deliver.
However, amongst the ‘Rafa Out’ banners, “You’re getting sacked in the morning” chants, and sloppy passing were a number of strong performances from City players who often don’t get the credit they deserve.
While Yaya Toure lumbered around for 90 minutes adding little of value to the game, alongside him Gareth Barry was putting in another solid shift.
Barry is very much a marmite player for Manchester City; a lot of people think he’s a clogger, undeserving of a place in the first eleven of the Premier League Champions, while others, myself included, can appreciate the job he does to allow the likes of Toure and David Silva the freedom to roam.
Along with James Milner, Barry provided a more physical presence in the middle of the park than someone like Samir Nasri would have, and the line-up made sense with Chelsea including both John Obi Mikel and Ramires in their side.
Barry completed 83% of his 70 passes, won three out of four tackles and came out on top in all three of his aerial battles, committing just one foul in the process.
While Barry is an opinion divider amongst supporters, I challenge you to find a Manchester City fan that doesn’t have a bit of love for Pablo Zabaleta. In fact, I would be surprised if there are many football fans in general who don’t like the guy.
Tenacious, hardworking, and extremely consistent, the Argentine has been a great servant since joining from Espanyol in August 2008, and has played a number of positions including right and left back and in front of the back four.
In the encounter with Chelsea, he was up against Eden Hazard and Oscar predominantly; two players who have looked excellent at times this season.
However, neither got more than a sniff as Zabaleta’s tenacity and strong reading of the game made Chelsea’s forays down their left flank few and far between.
Of course, all of those positives come with a negative and with Zabaleta there is a tendency to fly into challenges that he doesn’t need to, with his second half foul on Branislav Ivanovic resulting in a booking.
On the opposite side, Aleksandar Kolarov, a player not usually held in high regard for his defensive abilities, was 100% in tackles (four), clearances (eight; three headed) and aerial duels (two).
In the centre of defence, Vincent Kompany led by example just 48 hours after being on crutches following an injury sustained against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
As impressive as that was, alongside him a 19 year old showed maturity beyond his years to further enhance his quietly growing reputation.
Matija Nastasic arrived in the summer in a cash plus player deal which saw Stefan Savic head to Fiorentina in Italy and immediately, lazy comparisons were made between the two – both young, both central defenders, and both from former Yugoslav states.
Of course, given Savic’s quite awful time in a blue shirt, it was assumed that Nastasic would simply follow suit.
That way of thinking couldn’t be more wrong though and, right from the start when he made his debut in the Bernabeu, Nastasic has looked mentally ready, physically tough and comfortable on the ball, none of which could be said about Savic.
Indeed, the form of Nastasic raises serious questions about the future of Joleon Lescott who last season formed a very strong partnership with Kompany but now finds himself on the periphery.
At 30, Lescott no doubt feels he needs to be playing first team football week in, week out, especially if he still holds aspirations to play for England.
Overall Manchester City should be happy with a point and a clean sheet from the game given they created few clear cut chances, and it’s an improvement on the corresponding fixture last season when Chelsea ran out 2-1 winners.
Next up for Mancini’s men is a midweek trip to the DW Stadium to take on Wigan who are coming off the back of a narrow win over Reading.
While City’s array of superstars will be expected to have enough in the locker to see off the Latics, the side’s unsung heroes will be just as important in getting the right result.