Cherished Mancini closes on Cup glory
Rafael Benitez knows he's leaving but might like to stay. Roberto Mancini would like to stay but might be leaving. The Italian now has by the far the better chance of getting his wish.
The FA Cup offered the surest route to salvation. FA Cup finals have not yielded a shock result since 1988 when Wimbledon beat Liverpool. With all due respect to Wigan Athletic's outstanding achievement, the winner of Sunday's second semi-final will expect to beat the victor of Saturday's first. Even if Wigan do pull off the improbable, both Premier League and FA Cup will be residing in Greater Manchester.
Chelsea paid for 65 minutes of flat football. Once they found a route back they were denied by loose finishing, and even looser refereeing. Chris Foy is this season's Tom Henning Ovrebo. Sergio Aguero should have been dismissed and so might Vincent Kompany for denying Fernando Torres an equalising goalscoring opportunity.
"I think we played very well in the first half and we have everything under control," said Mancini. "After the second we played as if we had already won the game."
City beginning fresher was understandable in the light of six of Chelsea's starters having lined up for Thursday's Europa League trip to Moscow and the eventual victors might have been three clear by the time Chelsea's limbs eventually loosened.
City have spent much of the season looking ponderously predictable yet their interchanges flowed where Chelsea's did not. They possessed far greater power in midfield and attack too. An early skirmish between Eden Hazard and Yaya Toure was hardly a fair fight. Until Torres' arrival, Demba Ba looked lonesome ahead of the Belgian, Oscar and Juan Mata. Chelsea's first genuine attack did not arrive until the 23rd minute, when Oscar's poorly-hit shot from a clearance had to be headed clear by Vincent Kompany.
It has long been a complaint against Benitez-coached teams that they begin games too slowly, and here was a costly case in point. Until their goal, Chelsea's sole point of concerted pressure preceded City's opening goal.
The habitual 16th minute of applause for Roberto Di Matteo was not observed but fans' complaints about their current manager can quickly return to the surface. Benitez had spent all of the game on his feet but scuttled to his seat in muttering disappointment when Samir Nasri scored. The Frenchman was fortuitous enough to get a second go after his initial reception of an Aguero pass but his second touch was a fine finish.
Manchester City fans sang throughout for Mancini. A group of fans who went 35 barren years without silverware will always remember the man who won them this trophy in 2011, the Premier League in 2012 and now looks set fair for a third trophy in three seasons. Even if Benitez wins the Europa League, there will be no such chorus for him in Amsterdam.
Benitez has never asked to be liked, but he is entitled to call for better defending. Yaya Toure had tanked through Chelsea's midfield in the attack leading up to Nasri's strike, and only Tevez got in the way of preventing James Milner doubling the deficit. Toure should have done so before half-time after Milner's shot was parried by Cech into the Ivorian's path.
Nasri almost always plays better when David Silva is not around, and he took a much fuller role in City's passing triangles from a left-wing playmaking position. On the opposite flank, Milner showed why his hard work is so appreciated by his manager.
Another maligned midfielder in Gareth Barry provided City's second. His chip left Aguero plenty to do, but the Argentinian's header back across goal was superb. As it bounced down from the angle and into the net, Benitez could be seen cursing again. Behind him sat John Terry, face a picture of bemused disassociation. Frank Lampard's shuttle run down the line suddenly got quicker. With Didier Drogba now in Turkey via Shanghai, Chelsea were suffering from a distinct lack of Wembley heroes from seasons past. At one point, as Chelsea made a rare attack, Lampard could be seen offering advice to his onfield colleagues, a practice probably not signed off by his manager. It was Lampard's greatest contribution. Terry and Lampard were not offered a singled kick, the latter unused even as his team needed a cool finisher.
While the disgruntled pair remained in orange-bibbed exile, another substitute made an instant impact. Torres' 65th minute arrival for Mikel caused confusion and Ba replicated his quarter-final finish against Manchester United to pull Chelsea into a game they should already have lost. A team previously second-best in all departments had sudden momentum. Mata was robbed by City 'keeper Pantilimon when preparing to pull the trigger, and then Ba's effort was clawed away. To paraphrase a Benitez cliché, Chelsea were creating chances and they were controlling the game. Those in a lighter hue of blue were living in fear of a deadly outbreak of 'City-itis'.
"With Torres on the pitch you could see a team with more determination and confidence," said Benitez.
Yet 'Typical City' means something else now. The faint-hearted strugglers of old have been replaced by a group that fights 'to the end', as their fans sing. And they had to, too, as Chelsea pushed them hard. Some took that advice too literally. Aguero was lucky to escape a red card for a two-footed lunge on David Luiz's rear end; Vincent Kompany had his hands all over Torres as he boomed into the penalty area. Foy ran back to the halfway line with Torres retreading the steps of outrage with which Michael Ballack chased Ovrebo against Barcelona in 2009.
"I don't like to point out players," said Benitez, when asked about Aguero's lunge. "The main one is the penalty not given. These decisions can make a difference."
"I need glasses. I didn't see it," said an unconvincing and smiling Mancini. "Sergio is a good guy," he offered weakly.
The outrage was Chelsea's. The FA Cup looks more than likely to be headed back to Manchester City's trophy cabinet. And that should keep Mancini at Eastlands.
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