Amidst all the drama that surrounded the Man United – Chelsea clash at Old Trafford last Sunday, is the least talked about and perhaps most significant outcome. A little reminder that despite Manchester City’s abyss of resources, Chelsea remains the number one threat to United rolling on to a 20th league title come next May.
With Arsenal constantly perfecting the art of self- destruction and hitting new lows of defensive ineptitude, and Liverpool’s revival ride on the Kenny Dalglish wave hitting real snags, it is clear that the days of the “top four” are gone never mind what threatened to be the “top six”. It is now the “top three” and will be for a few years to come. It is quite obvious that the Manchester City and Chelsea are the only sides with the squads and the quality to challenge Manchester United for the title this year.
While Manchester City has enjoyed an unbeaten start to the season, it is becoming clear that it will not be all plain sailing. This week brought a tiny bit of reality check to Roberto Mancini and crew. First, they had to battle hard to a home draw in the Champions league game with Napoli, and then they succumbed to a draw by squandering a two-goal lead late at Fulham. Despite brilliant individual displays by David Silva and Sergio Aguero, there is still a fair bit of work to do at the Etihad Stadium. Roberto Mancini recently suggested he will need more players despite spending over $500m in three years (obviously with no regards for the mortal pains Arsene Wenger endures at the thought of daring to spend one –tenth of that sum) to juggle both domestic and European duties.
Personally, I do think the biggest obstacle to City really challenging for a title is with their manager, Roberto Mancini. It is all good as long as the goals keep rolling in from Aguero, but it cannot go on at this rate all season. I wonder if and when City runs into a bad patch of results, will his inherent Italian defensive nature take over? When he has to face the likes of Man United and Chelsea, will he not tighten the screws, revert to a 4-5-1 and look for dour draws? Never mind, the small matter of controlling the egos of Messrs. Balotelli and Tevez.
However, it is almost the exact opposite situation with Chelsea. I have been impressed with how Andres Villas Boas has gone about his business. In his short time at Stamford Bridge and despite almost as ‘young’ or ‘old’ (use which ever you prefer) as the likes of Drogba, Terry and Lampard, he has shown that he is not afraid to make the decisions he deems necessary, and seems in control of the big egos in the Chelsea squad. An example was on display when he hooked Frank Lampard for an anonymous first half, which was brave and the right decision.
He also has a philosophy of going out there and putting out a team with enough steel, but that still plays attractive, open football. As reflected in his squad choice at Old Trafford, he went against the norm of shutting up shop at Old Trafford like Mancini would have done. Even though they lost, he went out there with the aim to win, and it was clear this unsettled United’s shape in the second half of the game, when usually other teams would have given up on their chances of coming back in to the game, especially after such a first half score line.
Instead, credit to the manager and the team, Chelsea did not give in. Who knows, had Fernando Torres not missed in a situation, when missing was of the highest degree of difficulty, the game may have ended up with a totally different result. Certainly in the second half, Manchester United had so little control of the game, which rarely happens at Old Trafford, such has been United’s dominance of its home games. Indeed, Chelsea showed how average Man United’s midfield could be at times, with United unable to keep possession for any extended period of time. It is an old proverb that “fortune favors the brave” and while his team may have lost on Sunday, on another day he may have reaped the benefits of his bravery
However, the questions remain, as with every Chelsea manager under the Abramovich era – Will Villas Boas have a free hand to field the personnel deemed necessary by himself and his coaching staff? Will Abramovich allow him drop a mis-firing Torres to the bench or out of the squad totally? Will he give him more than one season to get the balance of the team right? If Abramovich does, even though I do think United are favorites for this season’s title, it is a long time till May, and it will be a fascinating three- horse race for this, and a few more seasons to come.