As a keen fisherman who was recently pictured on the front cover of the magazine Angler's Mail holding an enormous 29lb carp, John Terry is all too familiar with the experience of "the one that got away".
Every angler has a tale to tell about the heavyweight fish which just managed to elude him. For Manchester City and their manager Mark Hughes, Terry represents the trophy catch they failed to land.
Hughes dangled a tempting worm of £250,000-a-week in front of his old Chelsea team-mate, and while Terry certainly had a nibble, in the end he refused to bite, which will make his appearance at Eastlands today all the more galling for Hughes.
Despite aggressively recruiting the likes of Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Touré, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry in the summer, City are still a very long way from being seriously considered as title challengers. Seven consecutive draws in the Premier League have tripped up Hughes's side who are likely to be without Craig Bellamy and Stephen Ireland following knee injuries and are 14 points behind today's visitors Chelsea, in whose colours this season Terry has been outstanding.
Hughes sidestepped a suggestion yesterday that had Terry signed for City, the two clubs' respective league positions might have been reversed. "Hypothetical question and I don't deal with that," Hughes said. "We made bids but it wasn't something we could finalise. I'm sure we'll have similar occasions in the future."
Over at Chelsea, manager Carlo Ancelotti was in no doubt about the value of the England captain. Ancelotti, who spurned City's offer of £35m for Terry in the summer, believes Chelsea are a far better side with Terry and City a worse one without him.
Asked yesterday if City miss the presence of a player like Terry, Ancelotti said: "I think so. John Terry is not only important for his technical quality, but for his behaviour and his personality. They tried. After that they took Lescott – a very good defender – but it's true that Manchester City didn't win the last seven games. They drew. But they have only been beaten once in the Premier League. That means they have a good defence."
Ancelotti arrived at Chelsea in July amid fevered talk of Terry's possible move to City but he said yesterday he never for one minute thought the 28-year-old defender would leave.
"Players like John Terry, for a coach, are a big advantage," he said. "Other players have a very good example to follow. They know how to perform on the training ground if they watch John Terry. I never thought he would go. He is the symbol of this club, a fantastic captain. I cannot see him playing for any other club."
Terry recommitted to Chelsea in the wake of the interest from City, negotiated himself a £30,000-a-week pay rise, and since the season started has helped Chelsea return to the kind of dominance they enjoyed three years ago under Jose Mourinho. Hughes, who was a boyhood Chelsea fan and spent three years there as a player, has been impressed.
"They've been the standout team," he said. "Defensively, physically and in the attacking sense they have ticked every box. They look the real deal this season. They are close to being the best team in Europe. That's the size of our challenge."
In many respects Chelsea provide the benchmark, with the way the Londoners have bought their way into the elite of the European game. Things however are not moving as quickly for City. A year and a half into the Abramovich era, Chelsea were top of the Premier League and well on their way to their first title in 50 years. Almost a year and a half after City were bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group, the team are seventh and have slid out of the title race.
Yet Hughes is content with the team's development despite their run of draws. "We are two points off where I thought we would be at this stage, so I'm pleased," he said. "We've got to keep that focus and intensity, but we are not a million miles away from where we should be. But Chelsea are the team to beat, without a shadow of a doubt. The only time Chelsea have been beaten is on their travels so we have to take that encouragement, use it as a positive and make sure we ask questions of them. If we can get our noses in front let's see what happens."
One thing Manchester City and Chelsea have in common, despite obscenely wealthy owners, is they both beat Arsenal 3-0 in the past week. Chelsea confirmed their position as most people's favourites for the title with their convincing win at The Emirates last Sunday, while Hughes led City to the club's first semi-final since 1981 by hammering the Gunners in the Carling Cup on Wednesday night.
Chelsea have won their last eight league meetings over City but Ancelotti is taking nothing for granted, particularly the club's five-point lead over Manchester United, the only side to have beaten City this season.
Ancelotti revealed yesterday he once had a nine-point lead with just eight games to play at Juventus, but lost the title to Lazio on the final day of the season, an experience he does not want to repeat. "We had nine points but didn't win any of the last eight games and lost the last game, losing the title. Difficult, eh? A difficult holiday after that. I don't know what happened," Ancelotti said. Another fisherman's tale of "the one that got away".
Big-game hunters: City v top teams
*Manchester City 4 (Almunia og, Bellamy, Adebayor, Wright-Phillips) Arsenal 2 (van Persie, Rosicky)
12 September 2009
A third victory over Arsenal in four years, but a match remembered more for Emmanuel Adebayor's 100m dash to celebrate in front of Arsenal fans. A Micah Richards header was deflected in before Van Persie levelled. Bellamy, Adebayor and Wright-Phillips put City 4-1 up before a late Rosicky consolation.
*Manchester United 4 (Rooney, Fletcher 2, Owen) Manchester City 3 (Barry, Bellamy 2)
20 September 2009
City were edged out by the odd goal in seven in what remains their only league defeat of the season so far. Michael Owen's 96th-minute winner left Mark Hughes incandescent at the length of injury time after Craig Bellamy had given him hope.
*Liverpool 2 (Skrtel, Benayoun) Manchester City 2 (Adebayor, Ireland)
21 November 2009
Hughes' side left Anfield with a point for the second time in nine months as City drew a sixth successive league match. Martin Skrtel nudged the hosts ahead before the break only for Adebayor and Stephen Ireland to notch in front of the Kop. Yossi Benayoun levelled with 13 minutes left.
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