Intensity and inventiveness last night rendered the recent past irrelevant as Chelsea shattered Manchester City’s record run of home form with a tenacious display, a wonderful Branislav Ivanovic strike sealing the points at Etihad Stadium and taking the Blues level with the title favourites.
Right back Ivanovic settled 2013-14’s most compelling contest so far with a first-time, left-footed half-volley after 32 minutes following yet more scintillating play from the league’s outstanding talent, Eden Hazard.
And it was manager Jose Mourinho, having compared an uppity Sam Allardyce offering as an invitee to West London last week with that exhibited during the Victorian era, who was vindicated for a brave selection that confounded critics of the club’s previous league trips to rival grounds this term. The Portuguese served up a delicious spread of snacks for the crunching jaws of the press pack with a counter-punching performance of widespread intent, whole-hearted commitment and efficient attacking endeavour.
The stalemate against West Ham was so low on entertainment at times it was enough to make a grown man yearn for the Pukka Pies England Band (yes, they’re sponsored) or even seek out a rogue vuvuzela to muffle the monotony.
Yet with accusations abound following that awful excuse for a game of football and unseemly reactions of the respective managers, there remained an unavoidable sense that the Special One was soon to leave himself open to ridicule by adopting a similarly outdated approach in his next, most daunting, encounter at Eastlands.
By the time the team sheets were read, however, it was the hitherto free-flowing home side under the microscope, their squad looking easily the lesser-equipped for the postmodern world of engineered footballing prose put before them.
The term “Industrial Revolution” became popular at the turn of the now famous 19th Century and a second cousin of sorts was conceived this summer, as Stamford Bridge underwent an overhaul – not just of key personnel but of mindset – with a new squad taking shape in the image of the club’s most prodigal son, as foreman Mourinho returned to the world’s foremost designer warehouse.
Yesterday, City were rattled to their core by a bristling display from Jose’s visitors, who pressed high and exuded little fear in the face of what you may have heard is the league’s most threatening attack right now. The Blues were comfortably the more accomplished of the competitors with key contributions all over the park, intelligent movement allied to the deficiencies of stand-in anchorman Martin Demichelis to create space aplenty in which the usual danger men regularly expressed themselves.
Why the elderly Argentine centre-back began – then went on to complete – the match with James Milner and Jack Rodwell pitch-side is anyone’s guess. It betrayed an uncertainty from home boss Manuel Pellegrini in his team’s ability to cope without Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero that simply isn’t a concern of his opposite number on an evening such as the one just gone.
No signs of bus parking here from the main who first coined the phrase on these shores. No manager can be indicted on that charge in such circumstances; not with David Luiz in the line-up. Everyone’s favourite bouncy-haired eccentric was all energy, aggression and, most crucially, concentration as he set an example for man of the match Nemanja Matic that allowed the Serbian to grow imperiously into his first Premier League start and finish a picture of barrel-chested Mourinho-inspired midfield monstrosity.
His rip-roaring effort off the angle was one of three attempts to rattle the aluminium, following a crossbar-bound Samuel Eto’o side-footer and a headed Gary Cahill effort that grazed the goalscorer’s head en route to Hart’s trusty left-hand upright.
Both of the lion-hearted defenders laid claim to the champagne on a rare night when any of Chelsea’s Eleven could reasonably have expected special treatment from the sponsors.
The consistent level of Hazard’s threat was extraordinary, while Brazilians Ramires and particularly Willian were relentless alongside him. Eto’o retains his fiery belly and ice cold temperament and even Demba Ba contributed during his minute-long excursion, forcefully heading clear the night’s final corner.
At the back, Cahill appeared unbeatable and outshone even his peerless captain, John Terry, whose almost immeasurable leadership and experience has helped the England centre-half come of age over this campaign. Petr Cech was faultless when called upon, especially in thwarting David Silva, who would have unjustly equalised from a set-piece without a fine left-handed intervention late on and who might have scored earlier were the unsung Cesar Azpilicueta not alert and on hand to unsettle the hosts’ talisman and force him into rushed close-range efforts either side of the interval.
Mourinho has spent most of this campaign attempting to convince of his decision to defer judgement on his team until this time next year, when he expects to have built a team ready to stand on the other side of an “evolution” among the title favourites.
He may have a point, as his side still sit third with a glaring weakness continuing to protrude at the team’s tip, but the chemistry and camaraderie evenly instilled across each of his squad’s potentially explosive elements must surely mean his is a chance as good as any of lifting silver, even before this spring turns to summer.
Juan Mata has gone and Kevin De Bruyne, too. Oscar was benched yesterday along with new-boy Mohamed Salah. Andre Schurrle didn’t make it that far. Yet here was a side with flair in abundance and who were aware of when best to use it and when to keep their best in reserve.
The magic of Mourinho sparkles on as City’s aura flickers and fades. With a string of winnable fixtures ahead, the Mancunians’ ship remains on course (notwithstanding the presence, at time of writing, of a pre-meltdown Arsenal) to finish first but that unmistakeable sound of a steam engine in the distance is increasingly apparent. Working hard may yet lead to a changing of the guard; the enlightenment may soon be upon us.