Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Manchester City will still finish season as champions

A strange old memory came into the head at Stamford Bridge. It was of the misguided rush to dash off obituaries of Ernest Hemingway, the great analyst of grace under pressure, when his aircraft crashed and burned in the African bush.

City will still finish season as championsA driven man: Roberto Mancini witnessed Man City’s first league defeat on Monday night but it’s unlikely to stall his team’s march to the title





Prompted was the hope that mere followers of the Premier League should avoid a similar mistake now that the same fate has overtaken Manchester City.

Being excluded from the Champions League and losing their first league game of the season in less than a week was at the very least careless but it shouldn't deflect us from the plain truth.

It is that City remain the best, most talented team in England and one that is extremely likely to remain so beyond the last day of the season.

They have reserves of exceptional strength in every outfield position and if you doubt this you may not have dwelt on the cast list of replacements manager Roberto Mancini had sitting beside him.

It included Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Kolo Toure and Nigel de Jong. This was Mancini's back-up battalion. To many dispirited rivals it must have looked like their idea of a task force.

Much more remarkable though was the quality of performance City conjured while Chelsea were still adjusting — extremely, well as it turned out — to some stark evidence they were in well over their heads.

Chelsea may have huffed and puffed and eventually achieved an impressive victory but it was a triumph of will crucially assisted by Gael Clichy's double yellow-card frenzy and the much earlier, inexplicable decision of the referee to ignore the blatant foul on David Silva by Jose Bosingwa in the penalty area.

This fine effort of Chelsea yielded three points and granted coach Andre Villas-Boas still more breathing room in his attempt to re-model his ageing team.

But did it do any more than ripple the surface of City's continued potential to play the most devastating football in the land? Not if you reflected for a little while on this big game, how it started and how it finished.

It started with some of the most sublime examples of individual skill and balanced team work we have seen in domestic football for some time and it finished with 10 men fighting to contain a resurgent XI.

This is not to slight nine days of excellent Chelsea resistance to the idea that their season was on the point of disintegration.

Victories over Newcastle, Valencia and now City constitute not so much a kiss of life as a full-body wrestling of the idea that Villas-Boas is heading inevitably for the fate of every Roman Abramovich appointee except Guus Hiddink.

But if we praise Chelsea legitimately it should be at no cost to any sense that City remain in charge of their destiny.

Right now they have four potential players of the year, five if you count Vincent Kompany's metronomic capacity to build one impeccable performance on top of another alongside the showier claims of David Silva (pictured), Sergio Aguero and, yes, Mario Balotelli.

Yaya Toure's potential to wield huge influence in the title run-in, as he did in last season's push for City's breakthrough win in the FA Cup, can hardly be discounted.

This is an impressively broad sweep of form and daunting accomplishment in a single dressing room and should still make City the envy of all their Premier League rivals.

Balotelli? If the world often seems to him a pretty much unfathomable mystery, and if he continues to regularly challenge Mancini's apparently unshakeable belief that he is worth all the trouble, it is increasingly easy to see why the manager decided to adopt a most difficult son.

It is because for every indiscretion, each new loony tune, he produces moments of stunning redemption.

Also difficult to absorb is the fact that it was only last season when Mancini brought his team to places like Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and Old Trafford with all the reluctance of one of those snail-like schoolboys.

His game-plan did not amount to surrender, merely the pursuit of a goalless truce.

City now inhabit a different world.

We should avoid over-reaction to City's crash landing on the Fulham Road. Certainly we should hold the obit.

Belfast Telegraph

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