What price genius? It has been suggested more than once this season that Mario Balotelli may be more trouble than he is worth. The firework-igniting, errant child-correcting, trampoline-buying Manchester City forward carries a very unique kind of baggage around with him, but the evidence of this season – brought very firmly into focus this season – has demonstrated that every piece of baggage that he carries (including the suitcase that contains a talking toucan wearing a bow tie that he bought when his mother sent him out to buy a can of sardines) is worth the occasional bouts of petulance, the occasional show-boating that will probably cost his club a major trophy of some description at some stage and his perpetually aggrieved facial expression. Genius, though, has its limits. Balotelli couldn’t carry Manchester City on his own this evening and, after a bright start at Stamford Bridge, his team was beaten by a Chelsea side with a fresh spring in its step after last week’s Champions League narrow escape.
This evening, of course, is a battle of the Premier League’s nouveau riche, and it is perhaps a sign of the times that both clubs have experienced the feeling of having a metaphorical yet unmistakeably large neon sign with “CRISIS!” hanging over the gates to their grounds over the last couple of weeks. Andres Villa Boas survived his date with the executioner with a comfortable win over Valencia in Chelsea’s last Champions League match – a result which, in a saner universe, might have led some people to wonder what all the fuss of the previous few days had been – whilst Manchester City’s elimination from the same competition, although expected on account of their group rivals Napoli only needing a result from a trip to Villareal for their final group match, brought a fresh round of hand-wringing on the subject of The State Of The Premier League.
It took barely one hundred and twenty seconds for Balotelli to carve Chelsea open at Stamford Bridge this evening, racing around Petr Cech as if one of the best goalkeepers in Europe wasn’t there after latching onto a delicious through-ball from Sergio Aguero and rolling the ball into an empty goal. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, it looked as if City might just take full control of the match before the Chelsea team even managed to rouse themselves from their early torpor, after thirteen minutes Aguero nicked the ball from Ashley Cole and cut inside but, in an increasingly rare moment of fallibility, wrapped his foot around the ball as he shot and saw it roll a foot or two wide of Cech’s post. Two minutes after this, Jose Boswinga’s leg seemed to catch a squirming David Silva but referee Mark Clattenberg’s whistle stayed away from his mouth. Former Funky Bunch member Mark Wahlberg, descendents of the Hapsburg empire and former Police Academy “star” Steve Guttenberg may wish to stay clear of social media websites tomorrow morning.
As the half wore on, though, Chelsea started to stabilise and they are lucky in that they have a fire-cracker of their own in the form of Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge, who was their best player last week against Newcastle United, fizzed and crackled again this evening, and it was no great surprise when Chelsea’s equalising goal came largely as a result of his industry. Picking the ball up on the right-hand side, he skipped himself into a little space and crossed for Raul Meireles to volley the ball in from close range. Their upward curve continued through to half-time, but without a goal.
Thirteen minutes into the second half came another opportunity for Chelsea to begin to haul themselves back into the title race. It had been looking as if Manchester City’s discipline had been wavering as the first half had proceeded, with Vincent Kompany and Gael Clichy both collecting yellow cards, and it was no great surprise when Clichy earned another one for a trip on Ramires. For all of this, however, the frenetic pace of the match was taking its toll on the players by this point and, whilst Chelsea remained in the ascendency, as the rain started to fall play became scrappier and scrappier as time wore on, the passing a little fuzzier around the edges, the tackling more and more ragged looking.
With a little over eight minutes to play, though, Chelsea got the second goal that their dominance merited. It came from one of the game’s more innocuous moments, a shot from Sturridge that Joleon Lescott blocked with his arm, converted with a driven penalty straight down the middle of the goal. Somewhere along the line, Manchester City went stale this evening, as if even they couldn’t keep up with the pace with which they started this match. After an opening twenty minutes which suggested that they could go on and win this match as comfortably as they have on so many previous occasions this season, they seemed to have run out of steam tonight in spite of their brief break. Chelsea were comfortable and deserved winners.
With their Champions League win against Valencia, Chelsea now look considerably more fluid and confident than they did just a couple of weeks ago, and with this result those whose knees reflexively jerked with their recent run of disappointing results may be quietened for a while. Manchester City, meanwhile, stay top of the table, but their lead has now been trimmed to just two points and a little something of the aura of invincibility that they had been sporting in the Premier League this season is now starting took a little frayed. Much, for them, will depend upon how the react to this result. If Roberto Mancini can keep the undoubted talent which punctuates their squad in check and stop Mario Balotelli from inadvertently killing half of his team-mates, they are more than capable of staying in touch at the top of the table, and that that little battle may be back to being between three clubs again, rather than just the two. A genius Balotelli may well be, but he and Manchester City were undone by Chelsea’s renewed team spirit tonight.
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