The seeds were sown for a bad day for Manchester City an hour before the kick-off when the man providing a commentary to the pre-match penalty shoot-out billed a local youngster in a sky blue shirt by saying: "And now for Manchester United ..." Portents do not come much grimmer.
Three hours later City had even more reason to feel that luck and themselves are strangers in their own City of Manchester Stadium. They had dominated, squandered numerous chances and still gone down 1-0 to Eidur Gudjohnsen's 82nd-minute goal to maintain a miserable home record that last recorded a win in the Premiership on 18 October.
City thought they had given the spectre of relegation the slip when they beat Bolton eight days ago but today they are still haunted by the teams behind them. Chelsea, meanwhile, may be out of the title race but they are now in second place. Quite how, after such an undistinguished performance, neither manager could fathom. "We've totally outplayed a team with some great players in it and we've got nothing to show for it," Kevin Keegan, the City manager, said. "It's hard to take, I don't think we've played any better all season ... Claudio Ranieri summed it up when he said to me: 'You played fantastic, we played poor. You lose the game, we win. Crazy'."
Keegan had spoken of a spring in his players' steps as a consequence of the win at the Reebok Stadium and they began with it, too, exploiting Ranieri's bold experiment of using Joe Cole just behind the strikers by attacking Chelsea's exposed left flank. Frequently Shaun Wright-Phillips was left with just Wayne Bridge ahead of him and, after he skinned the full-back in the 17th minute, Jon Macken's adroit flick with his heel left Carlo Cudicini stranded. Unfortunately for City, the ball also beat the far post.
Chelsea flexed their muscles as the interval approached and David James, who had earlier survived hitting a clearance straight to Hernan Crespo, was able to show his more edifying side when he arched his back to tip over Frank Lampard's attempted lob after 42 minutes. Even better, he bravely halted Crespo's header from the resulting corner, crashing into the post as he did so.
This suggested the visitors were about to accelerate through the gears but, instead of Chelsea starting the second half at full pelt, City could have been three goals ahead within two minutes. All three chances fell to Robbie Fowler and, given his reputation as England's most authentic striker, he will have been disappointed not to convert at least two. The first was the simplest, a delightful pass from Wright-Phillips that scattered Chelsea and it merited a better conclusion than the tame pull wide. The second was much more the real Fowler, a turn and volley from 20 yards that sailed just wide of the post, but the third was another disappointment, a header going over after he had done the hard work in getting free to meet Michael Tarnat's cross.
Nevertheless, Fowler's misses heralded a concerted period of attacking by City and Chelsea were fortunate to survive. Antoine Sibierski shaved a post with a 25-yard shot after 52 minutes and Cudicini made a sharp save with his legs when Sylvain Distin thumped a header from a corner. That proved to be the turning point.
City have spent most of the season learning that you need to make the most of your periods of supremacy in the Premiership - particularly at home - and as they continued to squander their chances, the prospect of Chelsea pinching a goal on the counter grew by the minute. It duly arrived with eight minutes to go. Bridge made a break through the middle and although he was checked he had the presence of mind to avoid the easy lay-off. Instead he played the pass of the game as Gudjohnsen burst forward and the Icelandic striker neatly beat James with a flick.
City appealed forlornly for offside. For Chelsea, the season is still laced with promise; for the blue half of Manchester concern is looming. "If you don't win games when you play like that you really are in trouble," Keegan said. "We'll get over it, we'll have to because the next opponents are Man United."
Manchester City 0 Chelsea 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 47,304Reuse content