Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2014.
As our unbeaten run over Christmas continued into 2014, the away game at Manchester City loomed heavily in the distance. Despite the unexpected, and unsettling, presence of Arsenal at the top of the table, this encounter between the two English heavyweights always had the feel of a title decider. The league positions alone – them second, us third, both teams just behind Arsenal – justified that claim.
It would be a massive test. It would be the toughest game of the season thus far.
In the closing words of my previous match report, in which I documented out failings against a resolute West Ham United, I closed with the words –
“Manchester City next.
Just in case anyone was in doubt, the last of these words was laden with sarcasm.
In my mind, this would be a very onerous task.
Since our fine 3-1 victory in 2008-2009, an away game at Manchester City…the City of Manchester Stadium, Eastlands, The Etihad, call it what you will…has been as barren as it gets.
2009-2010: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1
2010-2011: Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0
2011-2012: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1
2012-2013: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 0
A few of these games have morphed into one. I found it difficult to remember too much about last season’s game. At least Carlos bloody Tevez wouldn’t be playing this time.
Yes, we defeated City 2-1 at Stamford Bridge back in October in a fine contest. At the time, City were a Jekyll & Hyde team; swashbuckling at home, fragile away. Our win confirmed the dual-personality of early-season City. Since then, their away form has tightened-up and they have continued to rack up cricket scores – or maybe rugby scores – at home. Eleven league games at their fortress and eleven wins.
This, make no mistake, would be Jose Mourinho’s biggest test of the season.
Even though the pay masters at Sky had deemed this game necessitated a change from a standard Saturday to a Monday night, a full three thousand Chelsea loyalists would be in attendance for this one. To make things easier, I had booked two days holiday for this away game; I simply didn’t fancy showing up at work on the Tuesday after just four hours’ sleep. In the circumstances, this allowed me plenty of time to pay a visit to my mother at hospital in Bath during Monday lunchtime. Again, Parky met me at the hospital. Mum seemed a little weaker compared to previous visits; I left the hospital in a rather subdued frame of mind.
For the first hour or so, there was rather less frenetic chat than is the norm.
“Tell you what, Parky. Why don’t you slap on some music? What have you got for me in your ruc-sac, mate?”
“Electronic ‘eighties. How about that?”
As we headed north on the M5 through Gloucestershire – the skies grey, the winter landscape dull, the River Avon flooded, the Malverns looming like Manchester City – Parky fumbled around in his bag, picked the requisite CD and popped it in.
The first tune?
“That’ll do mate, Blue Monday on Blue Monday.”
The familiar beats from over thirty summers resonated as I drove north.
“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”
I stopped for McCoffee at Strensham and at Sandbach. Both service areas were quiet; only one City fan at the former, no Chelsea at either. How different to a Saturday when both would’ve been crawling with football fans of every hue. I was deep in conversation with His Lordship and missed the usual turning for Manchester, so was forced into the city from the west rather than the south. I didn’t mind; although I was caught up in a little rush-hour traffic, at least I was afforded the lovely view of the red brick and the green signage of the iconic Salford Lads Club as I trundled slowly past.
I drove right through the heart of the city – Deansgate, more impressive red brick – and then parked up relatively close to Victoria Station. There were gleaming modern offices everywhere. The grim Manchester of the ‘eighties were suddenly forgotten. I always get quite a kick driving through the city centre, although other areas of the city have not fared so well. We had nigh on three hours to kill before kick-off. Underneath the railway arches, we spotted a pub called The Rovers Return. This was the real Manchester though; not a TV set. A hundred yards or so further on, I spotted The Lowry Hotel. I had driven past it, by chance, once before. This time, we were going in. I have always wanted to visit it; especially on match days. Let me explain.
Almost ten years ago, I sent out some letters to John Terry, Frank Lampard, Carlo Cudicini and Eidur Gudjohnson – my four favourite players at the time – and asked if there was any way they could find time to meet up with some friends from North Carolina during our visit to Pittsburgh for the Chelsea vs. Roma match in August 2004. One of my friends had just recovered from a cancer scare and I was hoping that the players might be able to meet her and her two daughters at the Chelsea hotel for a few minutes. As it happened, there was no official correspondence back from any of the players, but we met most of the team at The Hilton in any case. It was a wonderful twenty minutes.
Later, in September, I received an envelope stamped “The Lowry Hotel, Manchester” and opened it up to find that John Terry had sent me some signed 8” by 10” colour photographs of him. Evidently, he had been on England duty and The Lowry Hotel was used by the F.A. when England played home games at Old Trafford. What a lovely surprise for me and my friends. Since then, I have often wanted to see if Chelsea used the same hotel when in Manchester. This was falling in to place nicely…
“Maybe we’ll see the team get on the coach, Parky.”
Up in the hotel bar, we kicked back and relaxed. A couple of Peronis were quaffed. I had a bite to eat. There was a little banter with a gaggle of match-going Chelsea and City fans. Below, the cut of the River Irwell provided a contrast to the modern lines of the hotel. It was very pleasant.
At 6.30pm, we left the cosy confines of the bar. I joked with Parky “if we win tonight, I’m coming back next time.” There had been no sighting of Chelsea during the hour we spent at the hotel; some other time maybe.
I battled the Manchester evening traffic and pointed my car towards Eastlands. The neon blue of the stadium made navigation easy. By 7.20pm, I was parked-up at my usual – “superstitious”? – £5 parking spot.
“Parky, I have to ask myself…if we’ve lost the last four times, why am I still parking here?”
All around us were City fans. Again, I pondered on how easy, or difficult, the move from south Manchester had been for these fans since 2003? Maine Road seemed to define City; maybe The Etihad defines them further? The new academy stadium over the road was coming on apace from last season’s visit. City are certainly making this once forgotten part of the city their own.
Outside the away turnstiles, there were familiar faces. There seemed to be a larger than usual police presence, though. There was a little more security. It felt odd.
Soon inside, I bumped into Alan and soon made our way in to the seating bowl of The Etihad. As I ascended the steps, a familiar song was playing.
“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”
The superstitious fool that I am quickly decided that this was too good to be true.
Alan and I laughed.
Deep inside, I thought to myself…
“…mmm…it had better not be a Blue Moon Day.”
The Etihad is impressive as ever. There are plans afoot to add height to the end stands; a third tier to bring the capacity up to around 61,000 or so.
There was hardly any time to think. The stadium filled-up quickly. The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea in blue/blue/blue. I used to hate seeing us without white socks – superstition again – but ever since we won the league at Bolton wearing all blue, I have been less bothered. The home crowd sang “Blue Moon” and we retaliated with a ditty about the European Cup.
A quick scan of the team; no Oscar, a surprise, but I was pleased to see Matic playing. The surprise was seeing Ramires out wide. There was no time for much further contemplation. The whistle blew and we were away.
It was a familiar story during the first fifteen minutes. We seemed to be a little late out of the blocks and City were soon cutting into the heart of our defence. Without the injured Aguero, I was hoping that City would be disadvantaged. They still had Dzeko and Negredo, plus Silva and Navas of course. Chelsea scrambled to get in to position but the first few half-chances from the home team came to nothing. Chelsea began breaking away, though, and I was immediately impressed with Willian and Ramires as they charged down loose passes and broke.
The City fans down alongside us aimed a hostile chant at our manager.
“Jose Mourinho – Your Football Is Shite.”
Our reply was quick and to the point.
“Jose Mourinho – He’s Won More Than You.”
That shut them up.
I was unhappy with the amount of room that Yaya Toure – yes, him – was being given in the early part of the game. Nemanja Matic was finding his feet and I hoped that the game wouldn’t pass him by. I was reminded of an early outing for Ramires in 2010 when he was left chasing shadows at City against Toure. David Luiz was his usual enthusiastic self. I just hoped there would be no early bookings which might temper our aggression.
There was a little disquiet in our ranks…”come on Chelsea, get stuck in”…but I was happy with each passing milestone.
We were improving.
A shot from Silva went wide. We countered with a couple of efforts of our own. A Luiz free-kick is still in the air, travelling towards Oldham. Then, a rapid break down the Chelsea left but a tame shot from Ramires, with only Hart to beat, was followed up by a very ambitious bicycle kick from Willian on the rebound. The Chelsea fans were enthused and the City fans seemed worried.
This was turning out to be a fine game of football. We were showing City little respect, were closing them down at will, and were breaking intelligently. This was great stuff. A move down our right allowed Hazard to play the ball in for Ramires. His initial shot was blocked by Hart, but the ball fell nicely for Branislav Ivanovic outside the box. He had no time to think. He struck the ball hard and low, returning it back past Hart and into the far corner.
The Chelsea supporters screamed heavenly.
Despite being jostled, I tried hard to get the run and slide of Ivanovic on film.
Click, click, click, click, click.
Three seconds later I was screaming delight again.
A look towards Alan and another Oasis moment.
“They’ll have to come sat us now / come on my little diamonds.”
To be truthful, I could hardly believe it. We had weathered the storm, but were now ahead. With each passing minute, we grew in confidence. Dennis Wise was spotted in the TV studio, his smile wide as he punched the air to the delight of the Chelsea fans in front.
“Oh Dennis Wise – Scoredafackingreatgoal…”
A chance for Hazard, a chance for Dzeko. It began to dawn on me that Demechelis wasn’t a very good player. He wasn’t a very good player at all in fact. Meanwhile, Eden Hazard was on fire. He fed Samuel Eto’o, who unleashed a thunderbolt from an angle which crashed against the bar. Elsewhere, the midfielders were still stifling the City’s attacking thrust. At the break, we were getting into our groove. I hoped and prayed that the interval wouldn’t halt our rising confidence and strength. To be honest, Petr Cech had been largely untroubled.
With Chelsea attacking the away support in the south stand in the second-half, we were able to witness the wonderful skills of Eden Hazard as he bamboozled one City defender after another. It was a joy to watch. Elsewhere, Matic was growing as the game passed. To emphasise this, he collected the ball forty yards out, went on a little run and hit a cracking drive. The ball ripped through the air, but with Hart beaten, the ball crashed against the outside of the post. What a shot though.
City created a few chances, but their finishing was quite woeful. I was truly amazed at the lack of participation and noise coming from the home supporters. All of a sudden, Manchester City looked normal and, whisper it, a little unsure of themselves. Still we carved out chances. A Willian corner was headed back towards goal by the excellent Gary Cahill, but – AGAIN! – the post saved City.
At the other end, an onslaught seemed on the cards. However, the defence was magnificent throughout. All four defenders showed poise strength, determination and did not grow tired as the game grew old. In lost count of the number of Cahill blocks, Terry headers, Ivanovic tackles and Azpilicueta covering sprints.
A David Silva free-kick appeared to be goal bound but Petr Cech flung himself to his left to save. To reemphasise our domination of clear goal-scoring chances, it was his first real save of the night.
The nerves were starting to build.
Mourinho replaced Eto’o with Oscar. Hazard moved further forward. A half-chance for Ramires after a delightful through ball, but Hart sprinted out to gather.
The stats were displayed on the large TV screens and I was amazed that City were shown to have had 65% possession. It just seemed that we had been in control. I guess, our threats were mainly on the break. For all of City’s ball, our defence was rarely troubled. In the second-half, Matic became a man. He was simply superb. I think we have unearthed a giant.
Then, disgust. Oscar was fed the ball and he broke into the Manchester City half. Barely over the halfway line, Nastasic pulled him down. In my mind, Nastasic was the last man and he had to be shown the red card. When Mike Dean, instead, showed him a yellow, three thousand Chelsea voices turned the air royally blue.
My nerves were being torn.
Two further City chances. Another fine save – such strong wrists – from Cech foiled Jovetic, and then Nastasic shot wildly in one of the last kicks of the game.
…thinking…”come on ref…blow up…three minutes extra time…surely there can’t be long to go now…come on, mate…blow that bloody whistle…let’s watch him…let’s watch for that sweep of the arm…come on, blow up…please…YEEEEEES!”
I punched the air and my smile was wide.
…thinking…”that win is for you Mum.”
There were Chelsea fans wildly celebrating all around the away section. I watched as the players came – only halfway, sadly – to our end, but they were full of happiness too. Their joy was my joy. It was a sight to behold.
…thinking…”still only bloody third, though…how the hell can the best two teams in England serve up that treat and Arsenal still be bloody top…that’s bollocks…wait…we still have to play them at home…that’ll sort them out.”
I soon met up with Parky outside. Foxy took a photo of us outside the away end. The City fans, as they had been all night, were quiet.
I pulled out of Manchester at 10.30pm. Down onto the orbital M60, past the magnificent old mill building and the bridges at Stockport, then out past the airport onto the M6 and the road south. I called in at a thoroughly deserted Frankley Services at midnight and dunked my head into a bucket of cappuccino.
The music played on.
I dropped Parky off at 2am. I was home by 2.30am.
So, my fears were unfounded. Chelsea had negated City’s threat with a very polished performance, managed perfectly by Jose Mourinho. We had closed them down, defended as a unit, and attacked as a unit. Every single one of the Chelsea players had been simply superb.
Heroes one and all.
A Blue Monday for the record books.
“How does it feel?”
If felt bloody great.