Isn’t it good to be back? Our steps already carrying extra spring since City finally had some luck in the transfer market, and with the sun beaming down on us as prepared for the opening day, not even the prospect of a difficult season ahead could diminish the excitement. A new football season is among the most marvellous of things.
It may not even be quite as difficult as we feared, and as the idiot pundits (again) sneeringly forecast. City lost yesterday, but to a team that’ll be contesting the title, and in late and unfortunate circumstances. One single game cannot be used to extrapolate an entire season – but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot to be encouraged by.
At a warm and sold-out Stamford Bridge, Chelsea and City began the new Premier League season in front of the Sky Sports cameras, and the smart-suited Phil Brown elected to line up thus: Myhill; Mouyokolo, Turner, Gardner, Dawson; Mendy, Boateng, Olofinjana, Marney, Hunt; Folan.
A 4-5-1 line-up for the Tigers featuring three debutants, including Stephen Hunt, booed by the home crowd as a result of the challenge that hospitalised Petr Cech a few years ago. There was a minute’s applause for Sir Bobby Robson before kick-off, accompanied by a well put together tribute on the big screen.
City kicked off attacking the end at which couple of thousand Tigerfolk were stationed, and Hunt rapidly gave notice of his intention to rile Chelsea some more, clattering Frank Lampard after just a minute. He could have been booked, but Alan Wiley administered a verbal rebuke instead. From the resulting free-kick, City failed to pick up Didier Drogba and were relieved to see his shot sail well over.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea were seeing much more of the ball, however with Boateng and Olofinjana scurrying around in deep defensive positions, it meant that the home side were being contained with only occasional difficulty. Most of Chelsea’s efforts on goal flew harmlessly away from Myhill’s goal as the home side were forced into shooting from distance.
Boateng sent a long-range shot a couple of yards wide as City came into the game as an attacking force before Dean Marney sent a difficult header over after good work by Stephen Hunt.
City then had a shot cleared off the line when a Boateng volley was missed by Cech but hacked over by Lampard. Back came Chelsea with a couple more chances of their own, the game being played a brisk pace and with chances being created for both sides. City may have lined up with defence as the priority, but with Hunt springing from deep on the left and Folan bringing team-mates into play up front the Tigers were far from impotent.
With nearly thirty minutes of the new season gone, we took the lead. Another Boateng shot was half-cleared by the Chelsea defence, but the ball fell to Stephen Hunt about twelve yards from goal with Cech out of position, and he whacked it home to send the City fans wild and instigate a seethefest among the Londoners.
The away end crowed “we are top of the league” and taunted the morose southerners “down with the Burnley” as City looked more like the 2008 incarnation we so enjoyed watching upset the Sky Sports Super Mega Massive Big Four – if not quite in control of the game, then in control of their own contribution towards it. However, some things we cannot control. One of them is Didier Drogba – both the good and bad sides of him.
First, the bad – a pitifully soft tumble on the edge of the area conned Alan Wiley (who should know better) into giving Chelsea a free-kick. City’s defensive positioning looked a little suspect, and the good part of the Drogba saw him send a venomously dipping shot over the wall and past Myhill for an equalising. A great free-kick; a tawdry moment immediately before it.
City’s afternoon grew a little trickier minutes later when Dean Marney appeared to twist his knee after getting his studs stuck in the turf. He attempted to carry on but gave it up thirty seconds later. He trudged off the pitch in obvious pain and dismay, to be replaced by Nick Barmby. However, little else of note happened before half-time, save for Bernard Mendy being cautioned for an extraordinarily inept foul on Malouda, who seemed too bemused by the sheer clumsiness of it to object.
The interval brought a chance to reflect on a fascinating first half while sipping quite possibly the most disgusting pint ever sold on these shores. City had ridden their luck just a little but had not, to borrow the Jose Mourinho’s paranoid phrase, “parked the bus”. Chelsea made a change at the break, withdrawing Mikel for Ballack.
City lined up with the same formation as Chelsea attacked us. The atmosphere was improving a little too – it was poor in the first half, even the City fans being quite subdued. 12.45pm kick-offs are quite terrible from a fans’ perspective, but being in the Premier League means a Faustian pact with the television paymasters. It still beats going to Doncaster.
Chelsea made a blistering start when a slick move saw Anelka freed, but his low shot gave Myhill a chance to make a save, which he did with no little skill. Lampard was the next to try, hammering a shot into the side-netting – Myhill may not have reached it had it flown a yard to the left.
It was frantic stuff, and Chelsea were frankly battering us. City held on gamely, but were particularly fortunate to escape a goalmouth scramble in which Drogba should have scored his second.
City weathered this storm, largely. Bodies were being thrown into challenges in the area, while Boateng and the magnificent Olofinjana were almost playing as fifth and sixth defenders. Phil Brown used a slight lull in proceedings to withdraw the excellent Hunt for Kamel Ghilas, making his first appearance in English football. Malouda also paid the price for an average afternoon, giving way for Deco.
Twenty minutes left, and the suddenly a point seemed on the cards. This was a game many had mentally written off before kick-off – indeed, when we placed a bet on the Tigers in the pub before the game we got 30/1. Thirty to one! To win a single game. That’s the kind of price we used to see for City to win a divisional title, not a solitary match.
And we never really looked like winning it as the game crawled towards its conclusion, but we did look increasingly like securing an unlikely point. Chelsea were frantic by this stage, with shots raining down at Myhill but frequently going well off-target. The home crowd fretted.
Geovanni came on for Bernard Mendy and was given a terrific welcome by his adoring public, and Chelsea’s pressure become absolutely incessant once again. The game was held up by an injury to Petr Cech; this eventually saw the announcement of six minutes of injury time, which seemed somewhat on the long side.
And so Chelsea duly scored during it, though even a fairer counting up by Mr Wiley would have given them ample time. Caleb Folan had nearly pinched a winner at the far end when his cross deflected and nearly looped over Cech. City were not to have a similar escape when Drogba found space on the left and sent a cross over – he mis-hit it, and the ball gently flew over Myhill and landed softly, sickening, in at the far post.
Head in hands time. There were still about three minutes left, but this sucker punch had winded City and there was to be no fightback. The Chelsea fans celebrated with obvious relief – we were left with the bittersweet feeling of saluting a fine performance while leaving empty-handed.
So be it. If pushed, I fancy many of us would have taken a creditable defeat from this game, with a performance that hinted at future success. Losing so late was hard to take, but we’ll play worse and get better results this season. Hopefully. Many of the reasons to be cheerful lie in some towering displays by players we need to be at their best this season.
Firstly in defence: Antony Gardner looked every inch a defender with an England cap to his name. In fact, he was so good that Michael Turner was our second-best defender on the pitch – and I intend that to be high praise for them both. Mouyokolo made a useful debut, while Andy Dawson’s continuing ability to live with some of the best players in the world remains a joy to watch.
Midfield was our most strikingly impressive area. George Boateng rolled back the years, while Seyi Olofinjana showed why he was surplus to requirements at Stoke – he’s good at football. Instant control, immaculate passing, all allied to a fearsome physical presence. This was one of the best City debuts this observer can recall, and if he can replicate this form throughout, we’ll have unearthed a gem.
Stephen Hunt’s debut was also one to enjoy, however. It’s quite clear why opponents will be riled by him, but his committed all-action style will hopefully add a lot of useful bite and tempo to City’s wide play – and maybe even some goals.
And Caleb Folan?! He looked the modern centre-forward at Stamford Bridge: strong, skilful, clever and brave. I remain far from convinced that he’s what we need – but hey, it’s the start of the season, we’ve played well and those who doubt our right to be in the Premier League will be less secure with their dismissive predictions than they were a week ago.
So the challenge to City is a familiar one: to follow a fine display against one of the division’s better sides with the collection of points ahead our bottom half peers. Spurs on Wednesday await – at the time of writing, they’ve just beaten Liverpool and looked very good in the process, so we ought to be realistic in our ambitions for that game. A point would be fine. But Bolton at home await next weekend, a match we have to target for a win. An interesting week lies ahead. We can justifiably look forward to it with confidence. (AD)