Chelsea 2 Manchester City 3
In two shades of blue, separated by 100 yards, two flags fluttered in the Birmingham breeze. Hanging from the upper tier of the Holte End, the traditional home of the Aston Villa faithful, one simply said: “Thank you Roman”.
Opposite it, in the North Stand, another plucked its message from the calendar. It read: “93.20, May 13, 2012.” To every self-respecting Manchester City fan, there is nothing cryptic about this, just as the Chelsea supporters need not elaborate on why they are grateful to owner Roman Abramovich. It was in the 20th second of the 94th minute of the final Premier League campaign of the 2011/12 season that Sergio Aguero drilled the title-winning goal past Paddy Kenny in the Queens Park Rangers goal.
Chelsea’s historic high came six days later, Didier Drogba converting the penalty that made them champions of Europe for the first time. Last season did not just provide the context for the clash of the nouveau riche; it supplied moments that transformed players into immortals at these two clubs.
And it posed a challenge: how do you top that? Over 90 minutes at Villa Park, the clubs’ combined response was five goals, one red card, a surfeit of drama and a continuation of the action-packed end to last season.
Over a summer, Chelsea’s solution was to spend. City’s answer, on and off the field, was to find the answer within.
A goal down to Fernando Torres, their powers of recovery were apparent in the subsequent comeback. Without a summer signing – even if Jack Rodwell is set to become a belated first – their existing personnel remain an awesome proposition.
With David Silva limited to a cameo after his exertions in Euro 2012 and Mario Balotelli absent altogether, with Joe Hart, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry also on the injured list, they nevertheless overpowered Chelsea.
It was a show of strength, one that scarcely justified Roberto Mancini’s view that his side could be third or fourth favourites in the title race.
“They are the favourites, there is no doubt about it,” said Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea manager.
“He has kept the squad together and it is a strong squad. We have to catch up 25 points from last season.”
Much as Mancini may regret missing out on Robin van Persie – he has accepted defeat in his pursuit of the Arsenal captain – when Carlos Tevez is in this mood, the Dutchman would face a battle for a place.
The Argentine was an incessant menace to an overworked Chelsea defence, scurrying and scoring.
“His form is better than last year,” Mancini said. His fitness is, too.
“It is the first time in four or five years he did a pre-season,” the Italian added.
Collective resolve is as important as individual qualities. City’s spirit secured them the Premier League.
It was apparent again as, trailing to a goal beautifully taken goal by the impressive Torres, they mounted another in the series of comebacks.
Yaya Toure was a blockbusting presence in midfield, Samir Nasri an elusive one, darting into space. Both scored.
It was, though, a game that was changed by a red card.
Branislav Ivanovic’s premature departure meant that Chelsea’s aims of being expansive had to change. Instead, as they did in their Champions League run, they had to try to batten down the hatches.
They couldn’t. Nor, with less of the ball and one man fewer, could they supply their most expensive addition.
Eden Hazard was the only newcomer on show for either side – Marko Marin was injured and Oscar occupied by Olympic duty – and the Belgian debuted against the club he could have joined.
“We saw some glimpses of his talent and he will be a success,” Di Matteo said.
The £32 million (Dh184m) was predictably greeted with chants of “what a waste of money” from the City fans who cheered when, attempting a back-heel, the Belgium international trod on the ball and tripped over.
It was that sort of day for Chelsea. Even without expenditure, City showed a surer footing.
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