Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manger, last night acknowledged the "incredible" contribution of Carlos Tevez, after the Argentine striker delivered another extraordinary chapter in his stormy three years at the club by setting up the late goal against Chelsea which keeps the club's title quest intact.
Tevez immediately energised City after arriving from the bench for his first appearance in exactly six months, changing the course of a game in which they trailed with 12 minutes remaining. He had been on the field for 19 minutes when his exquisite close control allowed Samir Nasri a winner which created a Premier League 20-game record of straight home wins for City.
"He knows football and it was important because he did an incredible assist for Samir," Mancini said of Tevez last night. "When Carlos came back [from his self-imposed exile in Argentina], it finished everything. It is important for him to play games. He needs another two to three weeks to get good form for the future. When he plays, he knows where he should take the ball."
Only Preston (1892), Newcastle United (1907) and Liverpool (1972) have won as many consecutive home league games as City.
Mancini clearly sees Tevez as a potentially vital figure for City's remaining nine matches, with United's lead cut to one point. City can go back to the top of the table by winning at Stoke City on Saturday evening. "It is not easy for him, but it is important now he is here," Mancini added. "He was happy after the game, like all the players. I spoke with Carlos every day in the last six weeks. He knew he would be on the bench in this game and probably did well to play for more than 20 minutes."
The City manager, whose side were slipping out title contention after Gary Cahill's goal on the hour, said he could not tell if he had just watched the most important 10 minutes of his two years at the club's helm. "I don't know. I will tell you in May," he said.
The value of Tevez, whose presence was greeted by polite applause and some jeers from City's fans, was underlined by Mario Balotelli spurning a gilt-edged opportunity on the breakaway at the precise moment the Argentine began warming up in the first half. The Italian did not re-appear after half-time. "I didn't like how he played, so I made a tactical sub. Only this," said Mancini, who insisted Balotelli accepted the decision. "Why not? Yes."
City defensive injury crisis may not ease before they play at the Britannia Stadium, with Joleon Lescott out and Vincent Kompany a doubt – though Mancini said there was a "chance" the Belgian would play. Neither did this display suggest resurgent form, even though the win was deserved. "I don't know if it was a champions performance, but it was a good performance in a difficult game," Mancini said. "If you are not in good form, you can't win the last two games [against Sporting Lisbon and now Chelsea] in the second-half. So that shows our confidence is good."
Nasri's 85th-minute goal capped his best display for City, in which he also hit the bar in the first half. The Frenchman said of Tevez: "I'm really happy for him. He showed great spirit since he's been back and showed in this match he can be really important until the end of the season. It's good that it's him that gave me this assist."
The night brought Roberto di Matteo down to earth after four successive wins, though he insisted last night that his Chelsea side – who face Tottenham Hotspur at home on Saturday – would make a top-four spot. They are now only one point closer than when Andre Villas Boas was sacked over two weeks ago and the caretaker manager had his mathematics wrong on the subject. "We are going in the right direction and we showed we can match the best teams in this league," Di Matteo said. "We're disappointed we didn't get at least a point."
He said he will assess this morning whether Fernando Torres, withdrawn after 72 largely disappointing minutes will start against Tottenham. Branislav Ivanovic, forced off with a tight muscle after 21 minutes, is also a doubt.