The final three months of this season could shape the futures of managers Roberto Mancini and Rafa Benitez, as well as several players on both teams, says Richard Jolly.
Manchester City and Chelsea in a race to be Premier League's best of the rest
There are medals for those who finish second in many a competition. The Premier League is not one of them. There is a third-place match in some international tournaments. For some of England's elite, it is a merciful release that there is no equivalent. For them, that would not constitute an achievement.
English and European champions both mounted title challenges. Indeed, rewind less than four months and they were the top two. Now they are closer to Arsenal and Everton than they are to the runaway leaders, Manchester United.
Today's meeting forms the start of a new contest, to decide the best of the rest, that both never intended to enter.
Yet it is a battle with ramifications for the futures of both clubs. Both are shrouded in some degree of uncertainty even if City, positioning themselves as the anti-Chelsea, are not advocates of perpetual revolution.
Roman Abramovich, in contrast, is surely searching for a fifth manager since 2011 while Rafa Benitez, aware he will never win the hostile supporters over, has started to imagine managing his country while Real Madrid, whatever he says, would also have an allure.
Roberto Mancini, meanwhile, has apparently been identified by Roma as their preferred candidate to replace the fired Zdenek Zeman. Married to a Roman and with a track record of winning trophies in the Eternal City, albeit at Lazio, his appeal is obvious. But Mancini also has the stubbornness each of English football's great managerial imports has exhibited.
Despite Kolo Toure's undiplomatic assertion that he needs to win the FA Cup to keep his job, Mancini has been defiant, declaring the title race is not over and that no manager in England has done better over the past 15 months. Others agree, and many of them will populate Etihad Stadium today: Mancini remains idolised for securing City's first title in 44 years.
The previous Italian manager to win the league, Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti, was dismissed 12 months later, even if it is a precedent that could concern Benitez more than Mancini.
So, indeed, should the spectre of their old enemy, Jose Mourinho.
During Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Sparta Prague on Thursday, home fans called for the Portuguese's restoration. Benitez is fighting for a job, just probably not at Stamford Bridge: success would bolster his chances of employment elsewhere.
So the final three months of the season can shape next term. For City, it is not merely a question of whether they win a trophy, but of how close they can finish to United. There is the issue of individuals' futures. There could be a clearout in Manchester and a cull in London.
Chelsea arrive at Etihad Stadium with two goal scorers appearing an endangered species.
After 14 goals in 72 league games for four different managers and a disastrous display at Stamford Bridge, even Abramovich may have to accept that Fernando Torres, a target for City in 2009, will never return to his lethal peak.
Frank Lampard represents the opposite, a player whose Indian summer appears never-ending. Find the target today and the 34 year old midfielder will bring up a double century of Chelsea goals and continue his pursuit of Bobby Tambling's club record of 202. His case for a new contract is compelling, but Abramovich is yet to yield.
But when teams are failing to achieve their ambitions, individual narratives can take hold. During their glorious finishes to last season, they became a tale where personal plot lines became essential parts of a greater story.
Now the overall picture is fragmented as dreams have been broken, leaving each to pursue his own cause. It is not just about silverware. It is about survival.
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