After spending the last three seasons trailing Manchester City, who have been by a clear margin the strongest team in the country, it’s been interesting to regard ourselves in relation to Manuel Pellegrini’s side this year. All of the talk of our title chances have, after all, simply been a discussion of how we compare to the defending champions and what our chances of are of surpassing them. Many wondered at the start of the season whether the signings of Costa and Fabregas would give us a stronger first XI than our closest/only rivals; many still doubt that they have. Being honest, I’d still have to concede that their strongest possible side is marginally better than ours. Though on the basis of this season’s form, I’d also say that only Sergio Aguero and David Silva would get into a combined XI, with only Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure joining them in a combined 18.
For yesterday’s record-breaking league fixture (broadcasted to 175 countries), we came into the game in a comfortably superior position. City had lost their last two matches at home, Aguero and Kompany (both recently back from injury) were out of form, Toure was still away at the ACON; and for the first time in a very long time, it felt as though we were the favourites at kick-off, as the better team, in better form and shouldering much less pressure to get result.
Naturally, there was an obvious concern that with injuries to key players, Costa unavailable through suspension, and with almost the whole side fatigued from Tuesday’s epic League Cup win against Liverpool, that we would be conservative from the outset in our approach, when we had a chance to stretch our lead to an ominous eight points and extend their demoralising run of poor form. The team news though was encouraging. The selection of Kurt Zouma and Loic Remy over Gary Cahill and Didier Drogba suggested that we were out to press City and play quickly and to attack as much as we could; at least to begin with, anyway.
I think this seeming adventurousness in selection decisions though, should be considered in the context of the utter lack of squad depth which was made apparent yesterday. With Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah both looking likely to leave, and only Juan Cuadrado to come in, our senior first team squad now consists of just 19 players, a situation which left us having to select four teenagers as substitutes last night.
In hindsight, both Zouma and Remy were still brave selections and ultimately correct ones, with the former performing excellently and the other scoring the opening goal. Optimism over them being picked to facilitate a more attacking approach quickly faded though, and had gone completely by half time. As we lacked the energy, as well as the inclination it seemed to take the game to our opponents; instead our game plan became centred solely on congesting the midfield, squeezing the space David Silva constantly looks for and counter attacking where possible.
We learned yesterday that it takes only an injury crisis of very modest proportions to leave us desperately short of options. And though I thought we coped and defended excellently to achieve a deserved point, it’s impossible to ignore the risk of being left in a similar position later in the season, where the players may be exhausted and pressured to withstand a second half like yesterday’s, and against a team, potentially, in much better attacking form than City, also. It’s not a great prospect to consider.
Aside from the result, which keeps us in a commanding position, the major highlight from yesterday was the young Frenchman, who not only justified the retention of his place in the side ahead of Gary Cahill, but surely managed to cement it also, with a near immaculate and commanding performance at centre half. To bring the 20 year old in for two huge games over the space of five days shows how much the manager trusts him already. It’s difficult to think of a much more testing occasion to vindicate his trust also than last night. Facing relentless pressure from fast players and the country’s best creative midfielder, and with only knackered full backs for protection, Zouma looked completely undeterred by the occasion and the quality of his tackling and decision making was outstanding. He deserves a long run in the team from now.
Quite what Mourinho is thinking at the moment – I have even less of an idea as usual. His seemingly baseless refusal to give a press conference before the game, and his blanking of Sky Sports’ cameras throughout was just weird. Right now, he looks a lot like a bloke so desperate for confrontation that he’s prepared to seek it out where it plainly does not exist. It times like these that I wish Benitez was back in England so he’d actually have someone to fight with. These allegations of an anti-Chelsea campaign from the FA and Sky are just ridiculous.
Good job then I suppose that he’s such a good coach. With Costa and Cesc ruled out for good only the day before, I thought the Portuguese’ management of the game was excellent. A lack of options made selection uncomplicated but still, his deployment of Willian, Oscar and Ramires, deeper and more central than normal helped to null key areas completely, bringing on Cahill to man-mark Frank Lampard was clever too. And though City controlled the second half, we never really looked like conceding. I think we deserve a lot of credit for picking up a point and turning in an astute and intelligent performance in tricky circumstances. The ease and skill with which we can alter our approach is by far our biggest advantage, as well as what makes us this season’s most formidable challengers. The way Mourinho manages a season, constantly picking up crucial points is hugely laudable also. It’s something which he makes look very easy, while his counterparts often contrive to make it look very difficult indeed.
I was pleased also that Frank Lampard’s return to Stamford Bridge turned out to be the non-story we all hoped it would be. Idiot with ‘traitor’ poster aside, it was pleasing to see the generalisation of CFC fans as bitter or petty over Frank’s career decisions to be demonstrably not true. And it was even better to see him not score.
Establishing a five point lead over three game weeks equates to a successful January thus far. Particularly with a run of nine winnable fixtures coming up, I think we’re in a very strong position to extend that lead over the next couple of months, especially with no FA Cup games to worry about either. If we aren’t there already, I think we’re rapidly approaching a point where the Premier League is ‘ours to lose’.