Carlos Tevez returned from his six-month soccer exile on Wednesday with no apology, no greater sense of team spirit and no shame at the prolonged strike that provided the English Premier League season with one of its biggest storylines.
However, Tevez's qualities as a human being and his attributes as a player have always been separate entities. With that, the Argentinean's reappearance in a Manchester City shirt provided the spark that ensured the EPL title race keeps on bubbling.
Tevez helped City recover from the one-goal deficit they faced when he came on as substitute in the 66th minute to record a 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Etihad Stadium and move to within a single point of leaders Manchester United.
From the moment Tevez replaced Nigel De Jong, City looked livelier. While Tevez may have lost a step or two during those lazy months spent in South America, his touch was as delicate as ever. His clever ball to Samir Nasri set up the Frenchman for the winner and prolonged the club's perfect home record this season.
Tevez was last spotted anywhere near the City squad all the way back on September 27. That was the fateful night when, according to manager Roberto Mancini, he refused to come on as a sub in a Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich. Tevez's version of events is that he merely refused to warm up on the sidelines. He stuck to his guns, Mancini said he would never play for the team again, and Tevez headed off to his homeland, giving up around $15 million in missed wages as the penalty for going AWOL.
Tevez finally headed back to England a few weeks ago even though at the time it was unclear whether he would figure in the team's plans or if Mancini would hold firm. In the end, necessity won out, with a series of disappointing away performances allowing United to overtake City in the title race and make the clamor for Tevez's return all the louder.
When it came, of course, it could not be without controversy.
Chelsea might have felt it had this one under control, leading thanks to Gary Cahill's deflected second-half goal and managing possession well. But as soon as Tevez entered the field, there was an extra edge about City. While he was not directly involved in setting up the equalizer, he was center of attention nonetheless. Pablo Zabaleta's strike in the 78th minute was handled in the area by Chelsea's Michael Essien, and referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot.
In normal circumstances, Tevez would have taken the penalty. However, in his absence, those responsibilities switched to Sergio Aguero, who made no mistake. Tevez, meanwhile, stood on the edge of the area, poker-faced, offering not even the hint of a smile when the ball hit the net.
Indication, if any was needed, that the old Tevez is back. Not some new guy, with more collective integrity and a philosophical outlook. There was no doubt though, that the winner would not have happened without him. With four minutes left, he clipped the sweetest of touches into the path of the fast-advancing Nasri to spit the Chelsea defense and get the win.
"I am happy because he did well even though he is not in good form," Mancini said of Tevez. "I don't think he is 100 percent fit but he knows football."
And there lies the key. Even at some way below peak condition, Tevez is smart enough to add some impetus to City, right when they need it most.
Tevez's future remains cloudy. There is still no love lost between him and Mancini. But City needs him for now, and, for him to get the move he wants to a European giant in the summer, he needs City.
His actions over the past several months are regrettable, even if there is, as he claims, more to the dispute than meets the eye.
But soccer isn't a popularity contest and there are no extra points given for being a nice person. Tevez is rarely described as one of those, but he remains a fine soccer player as well as one of the rare ones that can turn a game on its head.
Or, in this case, a season. City certainly hopes so. United may fear so.
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- Carlos Tevez
- Roberto Mancini