MANCHESTER // The challenge for any club undergoing vast change is to achieve progress while remaining faithful to its original incarnation. After the finest four days of Mark Hughes's reign, Manchester City finally appear to be marrying their unique culture with a winning team.
Overcoming Arsenal in Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final was one achievement, but, given the inexperience of the young Gunners, overpowering the Premier League leaders Chelsea on Saturday ranked as a greater one. Goals from Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez provided a return on City's investment in each striker. They also produced an upset. City being City, it was not straightforward. Theirs was a victory that served to boost Manchester United's title bid with Tevez providing a final contribution to his former employers' fortunes. While clean sheets have been elusive, City conceded in comical and utterly unfortunate fashion, Adebayor scoring an own goal with his back. Yet the subsequent comeback was stirring.
It was fitting that Tevez, perhaps mimicking the wholehearted efforts that have long made Shaun Wright-Phillips a favourite in east Manchester, delivered the winner. A blend of industry and inspiration has characterised previous City favourites, many of whom have been defiantly different, and Tevez, a distinctive figure forever soaked in sweat from his endeavours, has the idiosyncrasies and abilities to join them.
It is significant, too, that the club has regained its feel-good factor. The raucous atmosphere of Wednesday's win over Arsenal was replicated, beaming a blue moon on the giant screen and rousing the crowd with an upbeat version of the club's anthem before kick-off. It brought a level of noise that City rarely experienced as they laboured through October and November without winning a league game. Ending the run of seven successive draws came with the most prestigious scalp of all. "Chelsea are the challenge for us," said Hughes. "At some point in the future, we want to supercede them." Beating them may not announce City's arrival as contenders - Wigan and Aston Villa have also registered wins against the Londoners - but the manner of it bodes well.
Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong were twin competitors in the centre of the pitch, condemning the Chelsea midfield to their toughest game of the season. Adebayor and Tevez, the long-legged African and the short, squat Argentine, have contrasting styles but produced a shared commitment to harrying Chelsea. Perhaps for the first time under the Italian, Carlo Ancelotti's side lost their discipline. Six bookings were a sign of frustration. Yet while each City goal had an element of controversy - Micah Richards handling before Adebayor levelled while the award of the decisive free-kick from which Tevez scored was disputed - Chelsea overlooked the questionable decision to give a corner that preceded their goal.
In any case, adversity was not confined to the visitors. Having begun with Wayne Bridge and Richards operating as the full-backs, injuries to both meant Barry and Nedum Onuoha ended the match in the back four. Circumstances can enhance a sense of satisfaction. In City's cause, the awareness that, but for the athleticism of Shay Given, they would have drawn for an eighth successive match contributed. His penalty save thwarted Frank Lampard and spared his side further criticism.
Yet analysis of the league table gives them one distinction. If the first stage is to make a side hard to beat, Hughes has accomplished that. City's solitary defeat this season was inflicted in the 96th minute at Old Trafford, whereas every other team has at least three setbacks. "We have only lost one game all season," said Given. "People shouldn't forget that." It was, however, a game of two goalkeepers. Given's consistency has been a feature of the decade, let alone his 11 months in Manchester. The unofficial title of the Premier League's best may now belong to the Irishman but once it resided with Petr Cech.
But the Czech took a step in the wrong direction and was slow to react to Tevez's free-kick. Cech's fallibility had been apparent in each of Chelsea's two previous two defeats. If, given City's recent expenditure and Chelsea's outlay in the Roman Abramovich era, the finances were impossible to ignore, the man who denied Chelsea a point was the cheapest of City's major signings this year. Money talks, but Given's excellence was more eloquent.