Second meets third in the Premier League on Sunday, though the match now holds less influence on the title race. The real intrigue comes about from the two under-pressure managers in the dugouts.
After claiming the title last season, many would expect Roberto Mancini’s position at City to be secure. His frustration was clear, though, at a pre-match press conference on Friday when he reacted with an, albeit jovially uttered, expletive in response to a question about reports that City were lining up Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini to replace him this summer.
The Italian continues to reiterate that it would be madness to dispense with his services, but performances this season do not support that claim. A convincing defeat at Southampton two weeks ago left City 12 points behind rivals Manchester United and needing an astounding turnaround to retain their league title.
It wouldn’t be fair to lay the full blame at Mancini’s door and the manager has justification in his repeated criticisms that the club’s hierarchy let him down last summer with their activity in the transfer market.
At best, the signings of Scott Sinclair, Javi Garcia and the injury-prone Jack Rodwell to replace Adam Johnson and Nigel de Jong left the squad at the same level. Add the departure of Mario Balotelli in January and Mancini’s options are now diminished.
Still, Manchester City should have performed better in both the Champions League—where the club regressed from their debut season—and the Premier League.
Mancini has claimed that some of his players have become complacent after last season’s success, but it is his job to ensure that does not happen.
The greatest knock against the former Internazionale boss is that after over three years in charge, the side on the pitch shows little sign of his influence upon it. Ask what City’s style of play is and it would be hard to come up with an answer.
Against lesser teams the high quality of players in the side, the likes of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, are capable of coming up with the individual brilliance to get results. But when City come up against the very best sides, the lack of a coherent strategy can be painfully exposed.
Never was this more evident than in the Champions League match at home to Borussia Dortmund earlier this season. The final score may have been 1-1, but the German side and their manager Jurgen Klopp rang rings around City that night and Mancini had no answer. His side looked lost.
Intriguingly, the lack of a managerial imprint on a side is one of the few criticisms that cannot be directed at beleaguered Chelsea interim boss Rafael Benitez. For all the abuse he has taken since replacing Roberto Di Matteo last November, the Spaniard has his side far better organized than his predecessor did when the team’s creative talent would provide off-the-cuff brilliance on the ball, but had little structure without it.
But Benitez’s tactical and organizational acumen is not going to be enough to ensure success at Stamford Bridge. He was doomed to failure as soon as his tenure began with the incredibly hostile reaction he encountered. Despite the fierce rivalry Chelsea had with Liverpool when Benitez was in charge at Anfield, it is unlikely that even he envisaged such levels of animosity.
The fans are obviously entitled to their opinion, but the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge has clearly had a detrimental effect on the team. For one thing, Chelsea’s players have an easy out if they do not perform; no one is scrutinizing the players’ performance, only the manager’s.
There is, of course, one exception to that point, Fernando Torres. Yet even with the increasing vitriol aimed at the misfiring striker, his continued struggles link back to Benitez due to their perceived close relationship built up during their time together at Liverpool.
Benitez has perhaps not helped with his continued support of Torres, but what is the manager supposed to do? Dent the player’s clearly fragile mindset even further by criticizing him publicly? Psychologists would probably not advise such a tough-love approach.
Benitez again supported Torres after Chelsea toiled to get past Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday. Again, with the Spain international the only front man available to Chelsea in the competition, any other approach would have been foolhardy.
Chelsea will be aided on Sunday at the Etihad with the availability of Demba Ba, while being away from home should also help. It was against City that Benitez first led Chelsea out to a mutinous atmosphere at Stamford Bridge and Sunday’s reverse fixture is unlikely to bring back fond memories.
Just a few weeks before that clash at the onset of winter, both Manchester City and Chelsea had been flying high in the Premier League. Three months on and, while their clubs’ positions in the league suggest otherwise, both managers will likely be approaching the match with trepidation, rather than anticipation, of what lies ahead.