Insipid Chelsea fail to shift bitter mood in the stands
Chelsea 0 Manchester City 0The mutiny was loud and sustained and, for Rafael Benitez, callous in its intentions. He shrugged his shoulders afterwards, insisted it did not trouble him and tried to convince us of his selective hearing. But it had been shocking to witness the vitriol that was waiting for him – and the players he has inherited could do little to shift the mood.
Benitez should probably be grateful that Manchester City were just as flat and uninspiring as his own players, because goodness knows what reaction there would have been if Roberto Mancini’s team had put away one of the few scoring chances of a pretty dismal match.
As it was, it was still difficult to remember another time when a new manager has faced such an outpouring of hostility before a ball has even been kicked. “We don’t want you here,” was the general gist, with the expletives removed. Stamford Bridge was an unhappy place, full of rancour and disharmony, and the Benitez era is going to be an embittered one if this is a taster of things to come.
Perhaps the negative vibes got through to the players, too. Chelsea have rarely looked quite so devoid of imagination or so short of the attacking, entertaining football that their owner, Roman Abramovich, clearly craves.
They did not force Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper, into a difficult save, and Benitez will have a much better idea now about the regression of Fernando Torres. A new manager usually gets a honeymoon period when the supporters do their best to make him feel welcome and the players try that little bit harder to impress. There was little of that here and Mancini could be forgiven for regarding it as a missed opportunity.
His team had the better of the match but lacked penetration and did not do enough to explore whether Chelsea might be vulnerable and, if so, take advantage. Had they displayed a touch more ambition they might have found the opposition were a little raw and would now be reflecting on a victory that would have taken them back to the top of the table.
Instead they were guilty of carelessness in the final third of the pitch and a collective lack of adventure. The match, in a nutshell, was a stinker.
Certainly it was rare to see so many talented players lacking their usual touch and subtlety - Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata most notably for Chelsea and Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero for City. The outstanding players were generally defenders and, for Benitez, the only real encouragement came from the way his new-look back four restricted high-calibre opponents to so few opportunities. As much as it goes against their current mindset, Chelsea’s supporters will have to concede that Benitez’s decision to play Branislav Ivanovic alongside David Luiz made good sense. One of Roberto Di Matteo’s oversights during Chelsea’s recent slump was that he never started the two together.
Chelsea, though, were helped by the fact that the opposition lacked their usual thrust. Mancini began the match with Edin Dzeko partnering Aguero, but it did not work and, on the back of last week’s Real Madrid tie, it is easy to understand sometimes why the Bosnian mostly plays as a substitute.
Carlos Tevez could not add incisiveness when he was brought on to replace Dzeko, and Mario Balotelli’s only contribution of note when he came on was a yellow card for running into David Luiz and then going down holding his face. The referee, Chris Foy, thought it was all an act.
City did, however, have the better chances. Pablo Zabaleta, always willing to break forward from right-back, set up David Silva for an unmarked header he flashed over the crossbar after 21 minutes. Aguero, usually a more clinical finisher in the air, wasted his best chance shortly before the interval. The second half was even less productive but Matija Nastasic could have won it at the death from Silva’s corner. The ball went straight into Petr Cech’s hands and the chance to go top of the league was gone.
Chelsea’s performance could probably be summed up by the fact that they only had one real effort on goal – a free-kick from 35 yards that David Luiz directed straight at Hart.
Benitez’s only praise for Torres was that he was “trying very hard” but he must be alarmed that the world-beater he managed at Liverpool has deteriorated to this point. The striker’s one chance, a left-foot effort just after the hour, was lashed over the crossbar.
Torres, in fairness, was not the only one to struggle on a day that will be memorable only for the way Benitez was informed, through a series of mutinous outbursts, about the depth of feeling against his appointment. It was a soundtrack of contempt and it was difficult not to get the sense that this will not be the only time he has to grit his teeth and try to block it all out.