Sunday 19 November 2017

Win and a prayer keep City in contention

Manchester City 2 Chelsea 0

Mark Ogden

ROBERTO MANCINI could have thanked Joe Hart for saving a penalty, or counted his blessings that Chelsea were quite so bad but, after seeing his side keep their faint title hopes alive, he instead thanked the Pope.

"One thing I want to say first is that for us, today is the last Sunday for our Pope," Mancini said following City's victory. "I would like to say thank you to this Pope for what he did in eight years. Thank you very much."

As a man of faith, Mancini is not the sort to trivialise his beliefs by seeking some kind of divine intervention to sustain City's title ambitions, but if that candle continues to burn at the Etihad Stadium, the flame is at least still flickering following this win against the European champions.

It may ultimately require Mancini to inspire a miracle for City to overturn Manchester United's 12-point lead at the top of the table and retain the Premier League title but, while the Italian was determined to pay tribute to the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, his insistence that the race is not over hinted at his own desire to prove that his work is not done in east Manchester.

Second-half goals from Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez, following Hart's 51st-minute spot-kick save from Frank Lampard, moved City seven points clear of third-placed Chelsea.

Mancini might yet have to retain the title to banish doubts over his long-term prospects as manager, but his position is still there to be saved.

Following the sixth defeat in his three-month reign as Chelsea's interim manager, however, the same cannot be said for Rafael Benitez, whose only achievement at Stamford Bridge could be to ensure that the post-Christmas sojourn in the Europa League becomes a permanent arrangement next season.

This defeat left Chelsea peering anxiously over their shoulders at Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton in the battle for a top-four finish, but their anaemic performance was not that of a team likely to succeed in anything.

Aside from Lampard's penalty, a result of Hart's foul on Demba Ba, Benitez's team created just one effort on goal – a long-range shot from Eden Hazard. However, for all of Chelsea's anaemia, this was a day when Mancini's players revealed why the manager still has a faint prayer when he talks about the title.

Toure, David Silva, James Milner and Sergio Aguero were all excellent and Tevez powerful from the bench.

If that group had only found the same gear through the dark months of the season, City would have less of a mountain to climb, though we should not forget Manchester United's points accumulation in considering the shape of the title race. Only three sides have garnered more points than United after 27 games of a First Division or Premier League campaign.

City dominated from the kick-off and they should have had the three points in the bag by half-time. Petr Cech and his defenders, minus captain John Terry, an unused substitute, were forced to repel several clear chances from the home side as City bossed the opening 45 minutes.

Matija Nastasic saw a powerful header saved from Silva's corner and the impressive Jack Rodwell was unlucky to see Gary Cahill block his goalbound effort after he had been released by Silva's destructive reverse pass.

Then came a near miss from Aguero, who latched on to another Silva pass and rounded Cech before seeing David Luiz clear his shot.

Perhaps Chelsea were feeling the strain of their laboured Europa League draw against Sparta Prague on Thursday night or maybe the players were shackled by Benitez's unambitious tactical approach. But, whatever the reason, City were barely troubled.

Rodwell, impressing on a rare start following a lengthy hamstring injury lay-off, went close with a header from another Silva delivery and Pablo Zabaleta's 20-yard volley appeared destined for the back of the net until Cahill threw his body in front of it.

There was a defiant chant of "Champions of Europe" from the Chelsea supporters as the teams left the pitch at the break, but it sounded as credible as Buster Douglas insisting he is still the heavyweight champion of the world.

Douglas famously had his one shot at glory and took it by flooring Mike Tyson, but even when Chelsea were handed the gift of the penalty, they failed to take it.

Referee Andre Marriner made the right call, with Hart clumsily fouling Ba. But, while the official may have erred by failing to issue even a yellow card to the City goalkeeper, Chelsea coach Steve Holland did not need to make a fool of himself by theatrically brandishing an imaginary card to the fourth official on the touchline.

Lampard, handed the chance to score his 200th Chelsea goal, shot low to Hart's right, only to see his England team-mate produce a stunning save. It was a turning point, imbuing City with the determination to make their early dominance pay.

The breakthrough came after 63 minutes when Toure scored his first league goal since December after ghosting past the daydreaming John Obi Mikel to curl a right-foot shot into the far corner from 12 yards.

It was a classy finish to another gilt-edged pass from Silva and the Spanish playmaker produced another assist for Tevez to make the game safe on 85 minutes.

Having received the ball on the edge of the penalty area, Tevez shot between Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic for his first goal in nine games.

While Mancini thanked the Pope, Benitez looked to the heavens, but probably wondering whether his return to English football at Stamford Bridge has really been worth it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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