Even City’s defence, their Achilles’ heel in recent weeks, held firm and certainly could not be blamed for Emmanuel Adebayor’s own goal. When the ball ricocheted off the Togo international’s back past Shay Given and into the Blues net, especially since the goal came from a corner wrongly awarded to Chelsea, City’s long-suffering fans could not have been blamed for cursing their luck. But roared on by a packed Eastlands, City displayed an iron will to win and outplayed Chelsea in every department. Carlo Ancelotti’s men were below par, and City were excellent.
After the doubts over Mark Hughes’ future at the City of Manchester Stadium that had surfaced throughout November, the defeat of Chelsea, combined with City’s passage to the Carling Cup semi-finals has shown what City could be capable of under the Welshman. There is still plenty for Hughes to get right in Manchester – the continuing saga of Robinho needs to be resolved and the defence, despite two impressive showings, still needs attention, but the former Blackburn Rovers boss has gone some way towards quashing the speculation that has surrounded him with City’s last two results.
Last week’s victory over Arsenal was easy to dismiss. It came against The Gunners’ talented but inexperienced youngsters, with a sprinkling of squad players thrown in for good measure, and while City’s performance was good, they were not faced with the strongest of opposition. But much harder to ignore are the three points taken from Ancelotti’s side. When Howard Webb’s whistle blew for the last time on Saturday evening, a warning was sent out to the rest of the Premier League. On their day, City can beat anyone, but more than that, Hughes’ side are approaching the elite level. Soon, the big four will be the big five and the ex-Manchester United forward is showing he could be the manager to lead City into that group.
The key now for City is consistency, and not the kind they showed during their near-record-breaking seven draw stretch. After taking only five points from games against Hull City, Birmingham City, Fulham, Wigan Athletic and Burnley, the games against similar mid- and lower-table teams are where City need to improve – it is no use beating Chelsea one week if the Citizens drop points against Bolton the next. The high tempo Hughes’ players took into the fixtures with Arsenal and Chelsea needs to be replicated in every game, but, also, City must use the superior talent at their disposal. The likes of Hull and Birmingham relish a match turning into a scrappy, disjointed affair, and if City allow the game to degenerate in such a fashion the ability of their big-money players can often struggle to shine through.
When faced with a team from the upper reaches of the league, City’s rapid pace can upset the rhythm of their opponents, allowing players of the calibre of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Gareth Barry and Stephen Ireland to impose themselves on the game via their technique, which is on a par with any team in the country. Hughes employed a similar style as a player – his physicality unsettled opposing defenders, leaving him free to unleash one of his trademark volleys that usually crashed into the back of the net. Carlos Tevez may not be of the same dimensions as his manager, but he is equally difficult for defences to handle.
The saving grace for City could be the mediocre form shown by the other Champions League hopefuls. After seemingly getting their season back on track with a victory over Everton, Liverpool’s disappointing draw with Blackburn Rovers has seen City leapfrog the Reds into 6th, just a point behind Aston Villa and two away from Tottenham Hotspur who occupy the coveted final Champions League place. Both Spurs and City face games against relegation contenders next weekend – City travel to north-west rivals Bolton while Spurs host Wolves, and it is imperative to Hughes’ hopes of catching the Londoners that he returns from the Reebok Stadium with three points. Harry Redknapp’s side could only muster a draw on their trip to Bolton, and victory over the Trotters would send as big a signal to the league as the win over Chelsea. City could be the real deal – but now is the time to show it.