City see the light over Mancini's 'holy' mission
Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0
It took the eloquence of the Dutchman in Manchester City's ranks to capture the essence of Roberto Mancini's managerial mission. "A clean sheet is holy,'' was Nigel de Jong's interpretation of the gospel according to Mancini.
It took time, many demanding training sessions and a major victory over the champions to convince City's players of the efficacy of Mancini's methods. Working overtime on practising a fundamentally negative game-plan is hardly the most joyous of occupations but the players have absorbed Mancini's system.
"Everybody knows what kind of manager he is,'' De Jong said. "He has come from a country where defence is No 1 and he has brought that mentality from Italy. It took time but the main focus for him is to get the defence right because he knows we have enough quality to score goals -- especially at home. That's what he preaches: make sure we don't concede.
"It is the mindset of every player. The belief is there. He spends more time on the training pitch with the defenders to get them to realise that a clean sheet is holy. You can see the message is getting through because we haven't conceded a goal in the last three games and only two in six Premier League games.''
De Jong and Co rarely looked like letting Chelsea through on Saturday. One particularly emphatic (but fair) tackle by De Jong on Nicolas Anelka summed up the unquestioning execution of Mancini's orders. Gareth Barry ably assisted De Jong in the centre while Vincent Kompany and Kolo Toure were imperious at the back, negating the battering ram that is Didier Drogba.
"I said to my players if we leave a space for Drogba, Anelka and Malouda they will score easily,'' reflected Mancini.
Even though largely subdued, Chelsea still flickered with occasional danger. Branislav Ivanovic struck a post and Drogba was clearly pulled over by Dedryck Boyata in the box. Referee Andre Marriner ignored the offence.
Mancini's policy of contain and counter-attack paid off on the hour mark when James Milner harried Ramires, Yaya Toure took possession and sent Carlos Tevez on a 50-yard scamper towards goal. John Terry and Ashley Cole failed to be alive to the danger -- surprisingly so, given the Argentine's prolific record against them. Tevez duly drilled in his sixth goal in five games against Chelsea (with West Ham, Manchester United and City).
"He's the complete package,'' said De Jong. "He's not the biggest player but he's so strong, you can't get him off the ball. You see how he fought with John Terry and Alex -- that's just unbelievable. Everybody praises him about scoring but his work-rate is just phenomenal. He's a great example for the rest of the City team. He's our captain at the moment and with good reason.''
Carlo Ancelotti had warned his players of Tevez's threat. "I am a magician!'' smiled Chelsea's manager before focusing on why the champions could not get going. "It was strange we lost the fight in midfield. They had a fantastic defence, fantastic power on the tacklers. When we play as individuals, we lose; when we play as a team, we win.
"At half-time I said to use more speed in the opponents' half, to avoid tackles in midfield and to play quicker. I took Drogba off because I wanted to use Sturridge. He was fresh and we needed more speed in front.'' Drogba shook hands with Ancelotti but arched eyebrows indicated his surprise.
At the end, Terry and Cole complained to Marriner. "There were times when one of my players suffered three fouls at the same time,'' said Ancelotti. "When that happens, he has to whistle. He couldn't whistle because he had left his whistle at home.''
Despite defeat, Chelsea still look a better-balanced side, better-equipped to retain the title, particularly when their midfield is back to full strength. "They were missing Frank Lampard with his creativity,'' said De Jong. "It shows that Chelsea are not robots. Everybody is beatable.''
The art for City now is to show the ruthlessness that accounted for Chelsea and Liverpool against lesser lights.
"It is not only me, it is the whole squad that rises to the challenge in the big games,'' said De Jong. "We're always on top of those games. But the main thing for us this season is that we play like that not just against the big teams but also the smaller ones.''
Having put in the defensive foundations, Mancini must now instil a touch more style. The introduction of Mario Balotelli, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng will bring more wit and width. "We will be (more creative),'' promised Mancini.
But he is right to focus on building the team from the back and managing expectations. "I am serious that Chelsea are the best team in the Premier League,'' he stressed. Mancini is not dismissing the idea of City winning the title, simply ensuring everybody remains focused. There are more clean sheets to prepare for. (© Daily Telegraph, London)