When the winner finally went in last night, Roberto Mancini pumped the air relentlessly with his fists, undoing a career of carefully cultivated Italian cool with one unrestrained dad-dancing-at-a-wedding celebration. It was that kind of goal for Manchester City, it was that kind of night.
Until then, they could see their first title since 1968, the one they believe will give credibility to the unprecedented investment of their Abu Dhabi owners and will be the launch-pad for the whole “project”, disappearing over the hill. Yet when the chips were down they found the strength to rescue this game and, quite possibly, their whole season.
It felt like a pivotal night, not least for the substitution in the 66 minute when Mancini summoned Carlos Tevez from the bench. The Argentine has not been seen in a City shirt since that night in Munich on 27 September when he crossed his arms and refused to budge. This time he acquiesced to his manager’s request and there was a mixed reaction to him from the home support, not least a weariness that this saga is still not over.
But in the moments after Tevez controlled a pass from Samir Nasri into him on the edge of the area, waited while Gary Cahill failed to make a challenge and then rolled it back into the path of Nasri to poke the winner past Petr Cech the mood changed again. There was no division or doubt over Tevez then, just sheer mayhem in the stands.
To come from a goal behind is one thing. To come from behind when your whole season seems to be breaking apart, when the mutineer is back in the team and the inspiration for the early part of the season – David Silva – has lost his mojo, is quite something else. City were below par at times last night but faced with the prospect of giving up the ghost when Cahill scored on the hour, or battling on, they took the latter.
It means that if they beat Stoke at the Britannia on Saturday, Mancini’s team will go back to the top of the Premier League before Manchester United’s game against Fulham on Monday. The title race is not over, in fact it is shaping up for a splendid conclusion which all points to that decisive Manchester derby on 30 April.
The stand-out performances for City came from Nasri, who last night had arguably his best game for the club since his transfer in the summer, and Yaya Toure who was a powerful, surging force from midfield. So too Sergio Aguero who scored the equaliser from the penalty spot on 77 minutes.
Before then this was shaping up to be a remarkable fifth straight win for Chelsea’s caretaker manager. As it turned out, Di Matteo’s team remain fifth in the table with six points separating them from Arsenal in third and five from Spurs who they play on Saturday. A lot of the old problems came home to roost again last night.
Di Matteo picked Fernando Torres to start the game, with Didier Drogba presumably rested in the hope that he will be fresh for Saturday, and although the pnds50m man began relatively brightly he looked all run out by the time Drogba replaced him. Torres’ reaction was telling, a dead-eyed walk past Di Matteo that had the Chelsea caretaker manager scurrying backward to mollify him.
Di Matteo need not have bothered. It should tell him all he needs to know that his team’s goal came from a centre-back. Torres bickered away with Yaya Toure for much of the game, and faded badly.
The Chelsea team looked different again last night with Frank Lampard deployed deeper and Raul Meireles pushed up closer in behind Torres. Ramires was on the right wing in the position usually occupied by Daniel Sturridge, who stayed on the bench. There was no sign of the injured John Terry on the bench.
In the first half Nasri went the closest for City, clipping the bar having taken Yaya Toure’s long ball on his chest and hitting a shot that beat Petr Cech. It was a lovely bit of skill and not much more than a half-chance when the ball left Toure’s foot. But it was as good as it got for City, one chance for Mario Balotelli aside.
That was when he intercepted Lampard’s careless sideways ball and ran at goal with 29 minutes played. Bearing down on Cech, the Chelsea goalkeeper did well to get a faint touch on the shot and push it wide of the post.
As City’s momentum failed to translate into goals, there was also the sideshow of Tevez’s presence on the bench. He was part of the second batch of substitutes to warm up and he rose to his feet just as Balotelli was released on goal which meant that his walk down to the touchline went largely unnoticed. There had been booing when his name was read out at the start of the game, and then again when he came out for the warm-up. But there was also much applause too.
Not that Tevez seemed to care either way.
There was something nervous about the way in which Nasri swung at Yaya Toure’s promising cut-back on 50 minutes and lifted it wildly over the bar. Five minutes later Nasri hit a cross that became a shot and Cech was forced to scamper back and push it against the bar.
Di Matteo brought Essien on for Meireles just before the hour which allowed Lampard to push further forward but within seconds Chelsea had taken the lead. From a corner, Torres challenged Yaya Toure. When the ball broke free David Luiz won the tussle with Barry and Cahill crashed the loose ball in off Yaya Toure.
Tevez’s introduction for Nigel De Jong over-shadowed Silva’s substitution after another average performance. City’s pressure eventually bore fruit. Pablo Zabaleta’s shot from the right channel clearly struck Essien’s raised arm. Penalties are Agueri’s responsibility now, and he made no mistake.
City came back for more and Nasri’s winning goal set the place ablaze. The race is on and City find themselves right at the heart of it.
Booked: Man City Nasri. Chelsea Mata, Lampard
Man of the match Yaya Touré.
Referee M Dean (Wirral)