Spot on Lampard blows the title race wide open

Chelsea 2 Manchester City 1

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The Independent Football

He may not get from box-to-box as he once did, he may not score 20 goals in a season ever again and these days he does not get in Chelsea's first XI, but when there is a game to be won from the penalty spot at Stamford Bridge that job is still best left to Frank Lampard.

He was a second half substitute last night, sent on by the Chelsea manager who is only just younger than him, and has brought to an end the old rule that Lampard starts every game for Chelsea. But the most significant win of Andre Villas-Boas' nascent Chelsea career was launched from the penalty spot by Lampard and the 178th goal he has scored for the club.

The goal that ended Manchester City's unbeaten run in the Premier League came eight minutes from time but Villas-Boas' team had been on top in this game for some time. Roberto Mancini said that the game changed on the second booking for Gael Clichy before the hour that reduced his team to ten men but to the home team's credit it came a lot earlier than that as they battled back from one goal down.

First it was Newcastle United's home record that was broken at St James' Park nine days ago, then it was Valencia who were beaten at Stamford Bridge a week ago today. Now the league leaders have also been brought to heel by a team who can claim to be the country's form side and go into Saturday's game against Wigan Athletic with a new conviction that they can be serious contenders in this title race.

Villas-Boas dismissed the gap of seven points that now divides his team from City as "nothing" in a league season as unpredictable as the current one. The Chelsea manager has taken on all-comers over the last few days, not least in his one-man campaign against Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, but to give him his due, last night was one of those occasions that can launch a young manager.

There was no sympathy for Roberto Mancini that City were denied a fairly blatant penalty in the first half for Jose Bosingwa's trip on David Silva – Villas-Boas believes he has too many decisions go against him this season to worry about that. Either way, there were complaints from Chelsea that the referee Mark Clattenburg had missed Yaya Toure slapping Juan Mata.

For Villas-Boas, as ever, the real triumph was in his tactical decisions. He picked another team that did not include Lampard or Fernando Torres in the first XI and was rewarded with excellent performances from Daniel Sturridge, Oriol Romeu, Ramires and Raul Meireles.

It was the latter who chipped in with the equaliser after 33 minutes of the first half. It was Ramires who drew the foul for Clichy's second booking. Villas-Boas said after the game that the "medium-low block" – his defensive line that no longer pushes so high up the pitch – was a more natural fit for his team and certainly they looked more comfortable last night keeping the likes of Silva and Sergio Aguero in check.

As for City, the plan, as of last night, was that the players were to stay in London for their Christmas party, complete with a fancy dress theme. Whether the party went ahead or not, it sounded like a night that was made for Mario Balotelli who scored within the first two minutes.

While Mancini regarded his team as unlucky, especially in the award of a penalty that he said could be seen "even outside the stadium", there were other moments in which they were fortunate. Vincent Kompany could easily have been dismissed for a second half foul on Mata having been booked before the break. In those early stages, City had the home side on the rack but they failed to put themselves out of sight.

Although they eventually sorted themselves out to defend deep, as they had against Valencia, the Chelsea defence found itself jumbled up and out of place in the early stages and allowed Sergio Aguero to pushed a beautifully-judged ball through their back line with the outside of his foot. Balotelli took it past Petr Cech and squeezed the ball in with only one minute and 39 seconds elapsed

For Villas-Boas it was a demoralising start with Stamford Bridge quiet and fearful in those early stages. Yet Chelsea hung on and it was not really until the 25 th minute that they forced a proper save out of Joe Hart. Didier Drogba's quick feet down the right channel meant that he had the space to get off a shot, little more than a sidefoot, that the City goalkeeper pushed round the post.

While they did not create a great volume of chances, there was no doubting that Villas-Boas' side had eased their way back into the game when Meireles scored the equaliser. Sturridge, who had given a Clichy a difficult time, crossed from the right and Meireles came onto the ball late, volleying it past Hart. 

Clichy had failed to deal with Sturridge in the first half and his tackle after the break on Ramires was inexcusably poor. He took none of the ball, all of the man and left Clattenburg, who had booked Clichy for a foul on Sturridge in the first half, with an easy decision to make.

It forced a major reorganisation from Mancini and the dynamic of the game altered considerably. Now City were hanging on for the point away from home and it was Chelsea who came forward with a desire to win the game.

With Clichy's off, Kolo Toure came on at right-back which allowed Pablo Zabaleta to move over to the left. Later the City manager would sacrifice Silva for Nigel De Jong as he tried to shore up the middle. Villas-Boas went the other way: he sent on Lampard for Meireles to win the game.

It was Sturridge's shot from the right side of Chelsea's area that struck the arm of Joleon Lescott, who foolishly raised his hands, and Clattenburg made the right call. After that all that remained was for Lampard to convince Mata he was the right man for the job and the rest of the story was as familiar as the old days when Chelsea would win games like these as a matter of course.

Match facts

Substitutes: Chelsea Turnbull (gk), Lampard (Meireles, 73), Torres, Mikel (Sturridge, 88), Malouda (Mata, 84), Ferreira, Kalou. Manchester City Pantilimon (gk), Dzeko (Lescott, 85), Johnson ,Savic, Nasri, K Touré (Aguero 64), De Jong (Silva 85)

Booked: Chelsea Romeu, Ramires, Meirles, Drogba. Manchester City Kompany, Clichy. Sent off: Man City Clichy (58).

Man of the match Sturridge. Match rating 7/10.

Possession: Chelsea 58% Manchester City 42%.

Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear). Attendance 41,730.

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