Eastlands was ready to party. Supporters were decked in Robinho shirts and arab head-dresses to mark the twin arrival at Manchester City of Britain's most expensive footballer and the wealth of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Then an icy blast of reality hit them.
Just because you are the planet's richest club, it does not mean you can catch up the elite overnight, and last night "Middle Eastlands" was quickly disabused of the theory that a Champions' League place will come as easily as the next million pounds. City did not flop their big entrance nor revert to calamitous type but they were comprehensively beaten by Chelsea who have a five-year start on collecting the world's best footballers.
City have just one, Robinho, and to be fair to the Brazilian you cannot expect even the most expensive player ever in British football to do much more than score on his debut. The £32.5m man did, with a first-half free-kick, but the problem was that Chelsea, who oozed the class of potential champions, got three goals through Ricardo Carvalho, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka. Even the late sending-off of John Terry for a cynical foul could not derail the visitors.
"It's an important three points," Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Chelsea manager, said. "When we went 1-0 behind I saw that the team were nervous but after they equalised I think they largely controlled the game. We have some injuries and I had to change A, B and C but the players who came in did very well. I'm more happy with that than the 3-1 result."
Mark Hughes, the Manchester City manager, also found plusses beyond the scoreline. "We know where we are at the moment," he said. "It's very early in our development in terms of a squad and a team. Chelsea were well drilled and knew exactly what they were trying to do, and that comes as a consequence of playing winning football for the past five or six years.
"It's not going to happen overnight. We all realise that. People have got a little bit ahead of themselves and a little bit hysterical but as a squad we know the level we are at." Whether it was hysteria is a moot point but the mood around Eastlands before the game was of mounting, and pinch-me-am-I-dreaming, excitement.
Given the pressure to live up to his billing, it was not a surprise that Robinho's first two touches were misplaced passes but before the words "what a waste of money" could emanate from the Chelsea fans, the Brazilian had put City ahead after 13 minutes. Carvalho was harshly judged to have brought down Jo 22 yards out and there was a helping glance off John Obi Mikel's head but you could not fault the drama or the crispness of the shot as Robinho curled the free-kick past Petr Cech.
The place erupted, Robinho ran to the touchline and collapsed to the ground under a pile of team-mates, but Chelsea are not a side to accept a supporting role and within three minutes they had equalised. A corner was won by Terry, the ball rebounded off Joe Cole and Carvalho crashed a volley past Joe Hart.
That goal ushered sobriety into the party and Chelsea spent the rest of the match creating edifying patterns. Lampard was outstanding, Deco, Carvalho and Joe Cole were fractions behind him and City, who had the chance to train with Robinho for the first time on Friday, looked what they are: a team in search of understanding.
Florent Malouda hit the bar with a header and Lampard fired just over immediately after the interval so it had been coming when Chelsea took the lead after 53 minutes. Lampard passed to Malouda and with the home defenders distracted by Chelsea's strikers there was a yard of potential on the edge of their area. The England midfielder is a master at exploiting this space and when the ball was returned he swerved round Richard Dunne's challenge and hit a low shot into the opposite corner.
City needed something extraordinary to get back into the match and they went somewhere nearer to it in the 77th minute when Jo seized on a mistake by Deco and would have raced away had he not been brought down with a rugby tackle by Terry.
His sending-off was a rare discordant note for the visitors on a night when victory was relatively easily achieved. "We expect to make a better fist of it when we meet them again," Hughes warned.
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