While Arsenal and Spurs fans are fretting over who will and won't get the Champions League spots, Benitez is sabotaging Chelsea's season to such an extent that it will be the Blues in the Europa next season.
You know the jokes about this fixture, and I’d like to think you’re as bored of them as I am; City fans having used to be Chelsea fans, the two sets of fans not knowing who to support, El Cashico, El Plastico, etc. These are the kind of “witticisms” about Manchester City vs Chelsea that were vaguely amusing the first time you hear them, but once they have been retweeted and recycled thousands of times ad nauseum by various #BANTER Twitter accounts, are simply tedious. Thankfully, both sides feature, between them, a good proportion of some of the finest players in the world, and thus the spectacle remains an alluring one, regardless of haters’ views on the two clubs and the way they are run.
When Roberto Mancini’s teamsheet came out, eyebrows were raised at the supposed negativity of his XI. With no Dzeko or Tevez in the starting XI, Aguero was the only recognised forward, and many read this as the Italian settling for a draw before the game was started. However, it is important to note that in City’s Title-winning game last season, one fixture that proved decisive was their away victory at St. James’ Park. With half an hour to go, Mancini took off Nasri and put on De Jong, a move that led many to scratch their heads. In that case, though, he was spot on - De Jong took Toure’s place in holding midfield which allowed the Ivorian to bomb forward and score two goals.
Toure was employed in this same advanced role yesterday, and from his Man of the Match performance featuring a skilful goal in which he eluded John Obi Mikel, he’s clearly adept playing in it. However, for all of Toure’s quick footwork, or Tevez’s excellent second, the game truly turned when Frank Lampard failed to score a penalty. Chelsea had been second best up until the decision - awarded for a foul from Hart on Ba - and it was a gilt-edged chance that they can only rue for not seizing. From then on, City bombed the Chelsea penalty area and like many teams who have come to the Etihad, Chelsea simply could not cope.
I had a bad feeling about Lampard’s penalty before he even took it. He scored against Hart last season at Stamford Bridge, in a game where he came off the bench to win the game. But lightening rarely strikes twice, and while Joe Hart has had a season ridden with clangers, this was a golden opportunity for the golden-haired goalkeeper to take a step towards redemption. And Hart grabbed it, quite literally, with both hands. It was not actually a bad penalty from Lampard at all, but in a game of second-guesses and double-bluffing, he was bested by his younger England teammate.
The sight of Frank Lampard not scoring from the penalty spot is so unusual that it took some mind-racking to think back to when was the last time he had another saved - away against Newcastle last season. On the whole, the Englishman is an extremely assured striker of the ball from 12 yards out; you don’t become your country’s principal penalty taker for nothing. Furthermore, when it comes to mental warfare, he is no-one’s fool; in a game against Arsenal this season, Szczesny dived to the left, Lampard’s usual direction. The Englishman seemed to know this was coming, however, and threw a curveball, hitting the ball to the bottom right. Lampard is famous for being one of the few footballers with any GCSEs, and on the whole, they certainly haven’t hurt his thinking in the chess-like strategies involved in taking penalties.
Joe Hart is a slightly different kettle of fish, though. The goalkeeper has been criticised on many occasions for being “arrogant”, whether it be the careless way he chews gum, that cringey Head and Shoulders advert, or his cheeky strut. When faced with penalties, he lives up to this even more, doing all he can to detract the opponent by shouting nonsense, pulling faces, or sticking his tongue out. It was this latter tactic that he employed against Ronaldinho at Wembley earlier this month, where the Englishman produced a fabulous save that helped England defeat Brazil for the first time in 23 years. There is obviously no ill feeling between Lampard and Hart, who get on a bomb when together on international duty (I’m a girl, I keep an eye on these things). But all’s fair in love and war, and in this case, Hart definitely came out on top.
Of course, it would be churlish to pin Chelsea’s loss on solely Lampard’s hunched shoulders. Frank has single-handedly kept Chelsea afloat so many times that it’s easier to forget just how much we over-rely on him. John Obi Mikel and Ramires had shocking games, the latter misplacing so many passes that it became painful to witness, and Gary Cahill, while heroic up until Chelsea conceded, could be partially culpable for both the goals that City scored. Most depressingly, however, was how Chelsea’s dynamic midfield duo of Eden Hazard and Juan Mata were completely shut out by the considerably stronger forcers of James Milner, Javi Garcia and Yaya Toure. The Belgian and Spaniard have plenty of guile and creativity, but they lack the physical strength that the taller, hench machines of City have, and in a game like this that was surprisingly physical - four yellow cards were dished out - they finished the battle on the losing side.
Manchester City comfortably deserved their win, displaying more attacking intent from the get go and scoring two fine goals. Their win means they cut the points deficit between Manchester United to 12 and the Premier League title for them, although highly improbable, is not impossible to attain. For Chelsea, however, even securing third or fourth place remains contentious. Spurs stand to go ahead of them with a triumph at Upton Park tomorrow, and Arsenal have a far easier run in than them until the rest of the season. And with the tactical acumen (or lack thereof) of Rafael Benitez, constantly making dubious substitutions and selecting questionable teams, I would fancy the two north London teams to gleefully leapfrog us in the league.
None of this bodes well for Chelsea. When Abramovich instated Benitez in late November, his first match was a home game against City, when Chelsea were still in contention for the Title. Between then until the present, a series of embarrassing losses and draws leave the European Champions grappling to qualify for the competition next season. As a famous credit card advert once noted, There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard. Money can buy Abramovich a lot of things - expensive footballers, fancy yachts, anything tangible, it’s his. However, as this whole sorry Benitez saga shows, one thing money most certainly doesn’t buy you is sense.