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James Lawton: Blues rise off the canvas to deliver a knockout blow


Chelsea were in danger of not just being beaten but outclassed, even cast into a much lower category than Manchester City, the team who have exceeded their spending power and also perhaps their ambition.

Or so it seemed until they rose up like an old fighter who refused to believe that his champion days were over.

The result brought Manchester City their first Premier League defeat of the season. It also made a new one, a new season, a new battle and new terms of reference. They were were ones which might just have to include the re-awakened hopes of the previously embattled young coach Andre Villas-Boas.

He asked, it seemed with ever deepening desperation, for some kind of response to the sensational opening of City. His reward flew beyond all reasonable expectations.

However the season develops from here, Villas-Boas will carry from it, surely, the moment when it appeared to be over, when all his strivings to make an impact in the footsteps of his mentor Jose Mourinho seemed on the point of a terrible denouement.

The possibility was created by a City goal that was devastating for a number of reasons. The first one was that it came in just 98 seconds. It was also both sublime and outrageous, This was because it was the combined work of Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli.

Aguero, as sure-footed as a mountain goat, kept his feet brilliantly while making the tightest of turns on the rain-drenched surface. Then he released a pass of passes, threading it between John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, so delicately, so easily they might just have been cast in stone. Balotelli, who had received jeers and a paper cup as predictable welcome gifts from the edgy terraces after his most recent journey into the small hours of a Manchester morning, collected the ball with a serenity that mocked his critics. He took the ball around Petr Cech as though it was the day's most routine task and then trotted quite solemnly back to the centre circle. When Jose Bosingwa almost immediately brought down David Silva with an outstretched leg, Villas-Boas's worst fears were cutting into him pretty much like the icy rain.

City had taken instant hold of the game with football that underlined their manager Roberto Mancini's pain that it now has to be prosecuted in the Europa rather than the Champions League. Then two quite remarkable things happened. First referee Mark Clattenburg refused to give the penalty. Second, Chelsea started to play. They didn't merely raise their levels of resistance to City's dramatically impressive statement that ejection from the top level of the European game was enough of a humiliation to last more than five days.

Chelsea produced some virtuosity of their own, less silky perhaps than that of Aguero and Silva and Balotelli, but still filled with verve and an ever growing authority. For a while Villa had looked very much the apprehensive apprentice standing a few yards along the touchline from the serial winner Mancini with all those scudettos and Copa Italias on his belt. However, if he was never likely to get immersed in those orchestrated celebrations, his body language, understandably enough, took on a whole new buoyancy.

This, naturally, reached optimum levels when Daniel Sturridge worked his way around the back of City's cover and crossed for Raul Meireles to equalise.

The transformation was near complete. For Villas-Boas it was an extraordinary deliverance. One moment he was contemplating a cruelly early departure from the title race, just as he had teetered close to elimination from the Champions League last week. Now he could a developing future when all that promise brought from his dazzling, youthful deeds in Portugal might just deliver something in the way of hard achievement.

When Gaël Clichy was dismissed for a second reckless yellow card, when Didier Drogba began to remind us in flashes of his extraordinary one-man renaissance against Valencia last week, and Frank Lampard came on to drive home the winning penalty, Villas-Boas suddenly had less need for pre-planned, mass celebrations.

He had some convincing evidence that whatever changes have to come, however much agonising there is in the transition for which he has been hired, Chelsea, this Chelsea, are something more than a team shuffling off into the shadows.They took the best of that a hugely expensive, and formidably talented team could produce, and then showed a little of their own.

It was strong and it was maybe perhaps more it was at least tempting to believe, than the merest holding operation. It had a force that might just carry a recently troubled coach beyond a mere stay of execution.