This season is catching up with the Italian's squad at precisely the wrong time. Eliminated from the Europa League in midweek, and now usurped in third place, the suspicion is growing that City are the stragglers in the pack at the top who could be caught at the last.
Tottenham Hotspur must believe as much. Their wasteful draw at home to West Ham United on Saturday will seem less dispiriting in the wake of this result. The fifth-placed Spurs are now four points adrift with a game in hand, and Harry Redknapp has deflated City's ambitions in the recent past. His side's visit to Eastlands has yet to be rescheduled this term but, last year, a cluttered fixture list rendered that game a play-off for a Champions League place in the season's final week, a contest settled by Peter Crouch's goal. City have secured only eight points from seven league matches and are now without an away win since Boxing Day. They will shudder at the prospect of history repeating itself.
There were mitigating circumstances for this loss, as Mancini pointed out and even Carlo Ancelotti conceded. City had played for 54 minutes on Thursday night with 10 men, courtesy of Mario Balotelli's indiscipline, in exiting European competition to Dynamo Kyiv. They had started brightly here and, once that sparkle had waned, there was solidity to admire. Yet energy sapped, power draining from straining limbs. Chelsea relish a relentless pursuit against tiring opponents and in the end there was an inevitability that the visitors would eventually be breached.
Mancini was whisked away from this arena shortly after admitting his side had been "so tired" – the Italian had a plane to catch – leaving his assistant, David Platt, to consider the loss. "We'd competed right up to the 70th minute, but the ball kept coming back at us," he said. "I wouldn't say defeat was harsh. I don't know the stats, but I would say that Chelsea had more possession than us." They had, but the most damning statistic was arguably the three shots mustered at goal all afternoon, only one of which was on target. They have scored only twice in seven meetings with fellow members of the top five.
City are still wrestling with a mind-set. Unlike Chelsea, who were expected to retain their title and compete well into the latter stages of the Champions League, Mancini had been charged – publicly at least – with securing a top-four finish this year as his minimum requirement. In future, if the money keeps flowing into their coffers, this team will arrive at arenas such as this expecting to thrive. But a draw here, Mancini said, would actually have represented a "fantastic result". Denied Carlos Tevez's energy by the Argentine's groin complaint, his side rarely suggested they might achieve anything better than stalemate after their breezy opening 10 minute spell had petered out.
Much has been made of the manager's willingness to cram his side with defensive-minded midfielders, relying upon Tevez or David Silva to spark their attack. Here, though, they lacked presence and bite in the six-yard box. The tally of efforts on goal did not feel surprising, though the hierarchy are surely justified in expecting more. "We didn't come here to sit off them," said Platt. "We had Yaya Touré further forward, David Silva, James Milner giving us the offensive stuff, and Edin Dzeko on the pitch." Yet the Bosnian rather sums up this team's current rustiness.
The focus here was on birthday boy Fernando Torres, who has endured 498 scoreless minutes in a Chelsea shirt since his £50m move from Liverpool, yet the Spaniard's toils rather deflected attention from Dzeko's struggles. The 25-year-old arrived from Wolfsburg with a fine reputation, yet his four goals since his £27m move have been against Notts County in the FA Cup and Aris Salonika in the Europa League. His eight Premier League appearances to date have been scoreless and, apart from one neatly executed back header which flew wide of a post, he rarely threatened to break that duck at Stamford Bridge.
The visitors' striker looked ponderous, his confidence about as buoyant as Torres', with David Luiz's eagerness to leap and block anything he mustered leaving him as frustrated as his manager. Chelsea had not been above City in the table since 11 December, but these teams appear to be moving in opposite directions again. "There's a belief we can finish in the top four," insisted Platt. "It's not a case of just holding on to fourth. We should be looking to finish higher." Yet there are tricky fixtures with five of the top eight to come, together with an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United. This is no run-in for weary legs and tired minds.
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