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Feb 24, 2013

Mancini wins war of embattled bosses

The reclusive Russian has neither confirmed nor denied it, but the accepted version of history is that a game in Manchester prompted Roman Abramovich to buy a football club. A decade after the bittersweet brilliance of Manchester United's 4-3 win over Real Madrid, after Ronaldo's magnificent hat-trick and David Beckham's devastating cameo in a lost cause, a Mancunian meeting of two billionaires' playthings offered further evidence of Chelsea's troubles.

A divided, divisive club's sorry season has taken another wrong turn. Much was made of the fact Manchester City kicked off 15 points behind United but Chelsea both started and finished 19 points adrift of the league leaders. They still sit third but they are nearer Norwich, 17 points away, than their enemies from Old Trafford. Abramovich invested £80 million in attacking talents last summer to transform his team into a free-flowing side but Chelsea had only two shots on target and one of those, Frank Lampard's missed penalty, was a cause of frustration, not a reason for celebration.

• Lythell: Familiar failings as Chelsea flounder • Curtis: Man City find swagger to see off Blues

Their likeliest scorers, Lampard and Eden Hazard, were both substituted by the interim, unwanted manager, Rafa Benitez, whose Premier League record in the current campaign is worse than that of his sacked predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo. He is beleaguered, his team bedraggled. Fatigued and flat, they could end up playing 71 games this season and failing on all fronts.

Away games offer some respite from the medieval cruelty of the Benitez-baiting of Stamford Bridge. He went unmentioned while the managers hailed in song were both Italian: there was the now traditional tribute to Di Matteo in the 16th minute and the frequent, ever louder, choruses of appreciation for Roberto Mancini. The City manager tires of speculation about his position but, besides the endorsement his players offered him with a dominant display, a man dressed as a sheikh wandered around with a banner declaring: "Mancini must stay". The Mancunian accent suggested it wasn't Sheikh Mansour, but the vocal support for the 48-year-old conveyed a message to the absentee owner nonetheless.

The higher force the religious Mancini thanked was the departing pope, Joseph Ratzinger, after his side cemented their status as the best of the rest. "Hopefully they can lose some points and it will be closer," Benitez said, though the fact he cited Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton means Chelsea are also looking nervously over their shoulders. They are in a fight to stay in the top four. He is doomed to defeat in his battle to retain his position, despite the support from his City counterpart. "I like Benitez because he is a good man and a good manager," Mancini said. "But I am not the chairman of Chelsea."

Bruce Buck is, but Benitez was hired on Abramovich's instigation. A reign that began against City in November, with a 0-0 draw, included a sixth defeat in the rematch. It seemed Chelsea were playing for a second stalemate. Devoid of attacking intent, theirs was a tame first half display. "We were giving the ball away and we were not winning second balls," lamented Benitez, who felt it changed after the interval.

The scoreline could have done, and in Chelsea's favour. Benitez looked to exploit the weak link in the City defence. Branislav Ivanovic directed a long pass over Kolo Toure for Demba Ba to chase. Joe Hart brought him down. Referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot but did not reach for his book. "At least a yellow card," Benitez said. "At least."

Mancini's analysis was: "Joe and Kolo both did a mistake." The goalkeeper promptly redeemed himself, saving Lampard's penalty. It was a setback in the midfielder's bid to become a record breaker and, even if only for another three days, Bobby Tambling remains the only man to record 200 goals for Chelsea.

Mancini then made the bolder move in a game of tactical chess. Both sides had fielded a solitary striker from the start. City had nonetheless fashioned a series of chances before the Italian sent for Carlos Tevez to join Sergio Aguero. The breakthrough, however, came from the twin midfield threats, David Silva teeing up Yaya Toure to sashay past John Obi Mikel and bend a shot around Gary Cahill with masterly precision.

Then Tevez, long a scourge of Chelsea, made the points secure with an emphatic second from 20 yards. "They have some very good players," Benitez said. So, though, do Chelsea but theirs did not perform. And so, in a match of the under-pressure managers, it was the unpopular one who emerged the loser.

MAN OF THE MATCH: James Milner - Well as City played, it was an occasion for the solid citizens and few have proved more dependable than Milner. In a crowded midfield, he showed typical industry and considerable intelligence in another fine display.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It has been a fine response to their disastrous display against Southampton. Mancini sprung a surprise by giving Jack Rodwell a first league start since September but the injury-prone midfielder excelled before making way for Tevez, whose energy enabled him to trouble tiring defenders. For the second successive week, Yaya Toure was excellent while Silva also proved influential.

CHELSEA VERDICT: The adjective Benitez kept deploying after the game was "disappointed" and they were disappointing. But for Petr Cech, who made a magnificent save from Matija Nastasic in the first half, their defeat could have been still heavier. They were overpowered in midfield, where Lampard looked all of his 34-years, and the decision to remove Hazard appeared odd. As he had only been a substitute against Sparta Prague on Thursday, the Belgian should not have been too tired. Juan Mata was unusually muted, but that was a sign of how well City's midfield markers did.

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