Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rising City expose Chelsea’s frailties

Before Saturday’s meeting between the two teams at Eastlands, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini claimed that he fully expects Chelsea to retain the English Premier League championship.
“Chelsea are the best team in the Premier League at the moment,” he said. “They are probably going to win the title easily. They are a strong team, who have been playing together for many years. They have a fantastic manager and they have worked to reach this situation.”
Was this an example of Fergie-style mind games, designed to lull the opposition into a false sense of security on the eve of a big game? Probably not; Mancini and his Chelsea counterpart Carlo Ancelotti are good friends, having played together in Italy throughout much of the 1980s, and their relationship is too strong to sink into petty psychological trickery.
Instead, the not-very-hidden message within Mancini’s statement was directed internally, to his own employers — namely City chairman Sheikh Mansour. “...playing together for many years...worked to reach this situation.” These are the key words in Mancini’s comments, with the unspoken message coming through loud and clear: At Manchester City we have a new team, and I must be given time to develop that team.
His motives aside, I don’t agree with Mancini’s assessment of Chelsea’s overwhelming strength, especially the part about them winning the title “easily.” This title race will be far closer than that.
Saturday’s game demonstrated that the Blues have a worrying lack of depth, especially in the goalscoring department. It might seem crazy to suggest that a team which mustered 21 goals in its first five games might struggle to score enough goals, but that was with their full strength team and against weak opposition such as Wigan, West Brom, Blackpool.
With Frank Lampard and Salomon Kalou injured, Chelsea had worryingly little in reserve at Eastlands on Saturday — the fact that Ancelotti was forced to use unproven youngster Daniel Sturridge and 17-year-old debutant Joshua McEachran as substitutes says everything about the strength in depth at his disposal.
I’ll agree with Mancini that Chelsea have the most powerful team in the Premier League, and if they were able to field their strongest eleven throughout the season they would probably be comfortable title winners. But whether they have the best squad is altogether another matter, and Ancelotti must be fearful about the potential ramifications if Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard suffer any significant injuries over the course of the next few months.
As for City, this was an extremely encouraging afternoon. Despite his thinly-disguised pleas to be given time, he’ll be well aware that he is now approaching a year in charge of City, during which time his team has often looked largely unconvincing. The remainder of the campaign surely has to result in significant progress if he’s to remain in position.
From talking to my contacts at City, my understanding is that the club’s inordinately wealthy owner, Sheikh Mansour, does indeed have a long-term vision and isn’t demanding that Mancini must deliver the Premier League trophy immediately. Such patience from a man in his lofty position is rare but, considering the colossal investment he’s made, the minimum requirement must be a very clear demonstration that Mancini is capable of taking the team in the right direction.
Although City haven’t always looked good in the early stages of the new season, Saturday’s victory did exactly that. Winning games of this nature is precisely what City must do to convince themselves — and just as importantly the wider footballing world — that they should be taken seriously as title contenders. Taking into account the shortcomings of their rivals, I don’t think they can be entirely discounted from this season’s race.
The club’s latest tranche of big-money signings (including Mario Balotelli, James Milner, David Silva and Yaya Toure) are still settling into their new environment, so September is far too soon to draw any firm conclusions. But Saturday’s victory suggested that City are genuinely closing the gap between themselves and the elite.
The consolation for Chelsea was that neither of their principle title rivals, Arsenal and Manchester United, could take advantage of their slip-up.
Arsenal’s shock home defeat to West Brom was notable for the fact that Cesc Fabregas was missing for the Gunners — the importance of the Spanish pass master was demonstrated by Arsene Wenger’s steely resolve to prevent him from joining Barcelona during the summer, and they simply can’t afford to be without him on many more occasions. As Lampard and Drogba are essential to Chelsea’s success, Fabregas is to Arsenal’s.
Manchester United’s failure to beat Bolton Wanderers was less surprising. The Red Devils are now without victory in any of their three away games so far this season, conceding seven goals in the process, and are looking uncharacteristically vulnerable on the road. United currently just don’t carry the same fearsome aura that many of their recent teams have imposed upon opponents.
So it’s been an interesting weekend that has in many ways provided more questions than answers. Are Manchester City actually ready to mount a serious title challenge? Do Chelsea have more frailties than they had previously shown? Can Arsenal overcome the inconsistencies of the occasional off-days that have plagued their recent seasons? And when will Manchester United finally win away from home? Only time will reveal the answers.

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