Chelsea's trip to the Etihad Stadium was billed as one of Jose Mourinho's greatest tests. Manchester City, so deadly on home turf, boasted a 100 percent Premier League record in its backyard, netting six times against both Tottenham and Arsenal, and, before the encounter, laid claim to the highest post-war goals per game ratio.
Not only was City the favorite but, according to Mourinho, it was odds-on to hit yet another London club for six. Much of the pre-match build-up centered on the Chelsea manager's criticism of West Ham's ultra-defensive display in midweek; would the former Real Madrid coach flirt with hypocrisy and travel to the Etihad simply looking to resist?
The answer was a resounding no. Mourinho, enthusing that his side would “try to win knowing perfectly we can lose”, employed a bold, exhilarating and even risky strategy. His side absorbed pressure, and admittedly in the latter stages dropped deeper and deeper, but it also attacked in numbers and with a gleeful expression and exuberance.
This was not the typical 1-0 win that was so allied with Mourinho in his first coming. Previously the side would have sat back after taking the lead, but this Chelsea side wanted more. The London side wanted to rip City apart as the Sky Blues have done to so many teams this season. If there was one criticism, it is that Chelsea did not make the most of the chances it created and would have been out of sight but for its profligacy.
|MAN CITY 0-1 CHELSEA
Terrifying is the only word for it. Toyed with the City back four with his panache and confidence. Set up the goal with his ability to dribble and draw in defenders.
Solid display in the heart of midfield from the Serb who not only broke play up but also threatened with his through passes and shooting ability.
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Mourinho's masterplan was built on a solid defense, with Petr Cech not tested until the 73rd minute, clawing David Silva's free kick away from goal. City only managed three shots on target (half as many as Chelsea), and save for some dangerous crosses into the six-yard box, was limited to shots from range.
The shutout marks a remarkable turnaround from a side that was a late and controversial Eden Hazard penalty away from losing at home to West Brom and looked abject at the back earlier this term. But, since losing to Stoke City at the start of December, Chelsea is undefeated and has conceded just three times, recording six clean sheets in its last eight games. In recent weeks, the back-line has begun to resemble the defense that dominated domestically during Mourinho's first reign.
Nemanja Matic, making his first Premier League start, was simply brilliant in front of the back four. He matched the muscle and horsepower of Yaya Toure, shrugging off the Ivorian at times, and snuffed out danger, but he also stepped up, drove forward, rattled the bar and posted the highest pass success of any Chelsea player. The Serb typified a team performance that married defensive responsibility and attacking drive.
When Chelsea did win possession, it sprung forward with almost delirious ferocity and pace. Chelsea may have lured City on, but it never parked the fabled bus. Mourinho's men attacked with gusto, engineering a four-versus-one situation that should have produced a goal, while Samuel Eto'o smashed the bar, before right back – yes, right back – Branislav Ivanovic bombed forward and thundered a shot into the bottom corner.
This was not football from the 19th century – and if it was, it has been meticulously re-polished and re-made for the 21st century – and at no point did Chelsea have its back to the wall. Mourinho had been criticized for his damage limitation emphasis in goalless draws at Old Trafford and the Emirates, but this was a display of front-foot football. It oozed positivity and pulsed with attacking adventure.
Any doubts surrounding Mourinho's decision to axe Juan Mata and sell the Spaniard to the reigning champions, meanwhile, has surely been eviscerated. The attacking trio behind lone frontman Eto'o was everything Mourinho had asked Mata to become. They defended from the front, they pressed relentlessly, they forced errors and they darted towards goal with fearsome speed upon recovering possession.
City's back line and midfield, Martin Demichelis in particular, were constantly on the turn, constantly under pressure. Eden Hazard, much like the transformation that Arjen Robben has undergone at Bayern Munich, combined his tricky, gliding genius with renewed work rate, Willian brought tenacity and drive in the hole, while Ramires played as though he had a third lung. Mata's patient probing has been replaced with a flurry of jabs.
There is an idea that Mourinho can suck the soul out of brightest attacking talents, his defensive pragmatism overriding their unpredictable sparkle (which, of course, is why Mata the non-conformist was exiled), but Hazard has only improved under his tutelage. His every touch of the ball fizzed as he danced towards goal and Chelsea's new style feels as though it can take the Belgian to another level.
One minor concern will be whether this is a style that can overcome teams who sit back and don't allow space on the break, with wins over fellow title challengers rendered insignificant if Chelsea's continues to suffer as it did against West Ham. There's also a sense that this side has been engineered predominantly with the Champions League in mind.
Mourinho has been at pains to stress that this Chelsea team, remoulded and reimagined, is still in its infancy, still forging an identity, but even at this early stage it looks a fearsome prospect. There is also more fun and attacking freedom now, even if the Blues aren't playing tiki-taka, and the rest of the Premier League should be extremely worried by just how easy Chelsea made victory over City look.
- Sports & Recreation