James Lawton: Mancini is still the envy of all his rivals


A strange old memory came into the head at Stamford Bridge. It was of the misguided rush to dash off obituaries of Ernest Hemingway, the great analyst of grace under pressure, when his aircraft crashed and burned in the African bush.

Prompted was the hope that mere followers of the Premier League should avoid a similar mistake now that the same fate has overtaken Manchester City. Being excluded from the Champions League and losing their first league game of the season in less than a week was at the very least careless but it shouldn't deflect us from the plain truth. It is that City remain the best, most talented team in England and one that is extremely likely to remain so beyond the last day of the season.

They have reserves of exceptional strength in every outfield position and if you doubt this you may not have dwelt on the cast list of replacements manager Roberto Mancini had sitting beside him. It included Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Kolo Touré and Nigel de Jong. This was Mancini's back-up battalion. To many dispirited rivals it must have looked like their idea of a task force.

Much more remarkable, though, was the quality of performance City conjured while Chelsea were still adjusting – extremely well, as it turned out – to some stark evidence they were in well over their heads.

Chelsea may have huffed and puffed and eventually achieved an impressive victory but more than anything it was a triumph of will crucially assisted by Gaël Clichy's double yellow-card frenzy and the much earlier, inexplicable decision of the referee to ignore the blatant foul on David Silva by Jose Bosingwa in the penalty area.

This fine effort of Chelsea yielded three points and granted coach Andre Villas-Boas still more breathing room in his attempt to remodel his ageing team. But did it do any more than ripple the surface of City's continued potential to play the most devastating football in the land? Not if you reflected for a little while on this big game, how it started and how it finished.

It started with some of the most sublime examples of individual skill and balanced teamwork we have seen in domestic football for some time and it finished with 10 men fighting to contain a resurgent XI.

This is not to slight nine days of excellent Chelsea resistance to the idea that their season was on the point of disintegration. Victories over Newcastle, Valencia and now City constitute not so much a kiss of life as a full-body wrestling of the idea that Villas-Boas is heading inevitably for the fate of every Roman Abramovich appointee except Guus Hiddink. But if we praise Chelsea legitimately it should be at no cost to any sense that City remain in charge of their destiny.

Right now they have four potential players of the year, five if you count Vincent Kompany's metronomic capacity to build one impeccable performance on top of another alongside the showier claims of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and, yes, Mario Balotelli. Yaya Touré's potential to wield huge influence in the title run-in, as he did in last season's push for City's breakthrough win in the FA Cup, can hardly be discounted, assuming he looks at the film of his somewhat brutish treatment of Juan Mata this week and spends the necessary time in front of the bathroom mirror.

This is an impressively broad sweep of form and daunting accomplishment in a single dressing room and should still make City the envy of all their Premier League rivals.

Balotelli? If the world often seems to him a pretty much unfathomable mystery, and if he continues regularly to challenge Mancini's apparently unshakeable belief that he is worth all the trouble, it is increasingly easy to see why the manager decided to adopt a most difficult son. It is because for every indiscretion, each new loony tune, he produces moments of stunning redemption.

The one on Monday night was especially convincing. It challenged us to believe that a man who might just organise a firework display in his own bathroom was capable of the untouchable serenity he displayed while linking with Aguero for a goal which defined the immensity of City's creative possibilities.

Also difficult to absorb is the fact that it was only last season when Mancini brought his team to places like Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and Old Trafford with all the reluctance of one of those snail-like schoolboys. His game plan did not amount to surrender, merely the pursuit of a goalless truce.

City now inhabit a different world. It is not without its dangers, even with the disruptive force of Carlos Tevez so effectively neutralised by Mancini. For some of us there still has to be the lingering doubt that you can pack a single football club with so much high-priced talent, and limited playing opportunity, and be sanguine about your chances of avoiding periodic eruptions. Still, though, the most relevant point of judgement is on the field.

This means that we should avoid overreaction to City's crash landing on the Fulham Road. Certainly, we should hold the obit.