In one of the few occasions when the interests of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea aligned, fans of all three clubs supported the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday as Chelsea came from behind to beat City 2-1 and end their unbeaten (and very impressive) start to the season.
In a sense, ‘El Cashico’ was similar to the the plot of Saturday’s El Clasico: one team scoring early, then losing the initiative as the game wore on. For that, referee Mark Clattenburg must take part of the blame: there was contact on David Silva as he went down in the box, but he waved for play to continue. You could blame Roberto Mancini for a lack of ‘ambition’ with his changes, taking off Aguero, then Silva, but one wonders about his options after Gael Clichy got sent off for a second bookable offence on 55 minutes.
For Chelsea, it is one more good result as the clear skies continue to emerge over Stamford Bridge. Andre Villas-Boas has had to put on hold his grand plan for the club, and ironically, it may see him stay long enough to implement it. Some changes are apparent, however: Anelka is already in Shanghai, Lampard and Mikel are a lot more familiar with the bench, and Oriol Romeu’s star is on the rise.
It was Lampard who put away the penalty following Joleon Lescott’s handball, throwing open the title race, and it is conceivable that Manchester United could be top by Sunday night, when the league leaders face Robin van Persie.
After the game, Roberto Mancini said the defeat changes nothing for his team. Indeed, it shouldn’t. Their squad is the best in the league by some distance, and they still have a lead. The burden of proof now shifts to the chasing pack to show they can put a decent run of results together. The loudest cheers after the final whistle must have come from the red half of Manchester, but United have very tricky away games against QPR and Fulham to come, and it is worth remembering that City conceded twice at both grounds.
The excitement generated by a more open race could very well evaporate if others drop points and City go back to business as usual. It is intriguing to think what their lead would be now, had they ended both games at Anfield and Stamford Bridge with 11 men. Their solid defensive backbone is reminiscent of Mourinho’s Chelsea: they are not a team that looks likely to crumble under pressure. They also entertain 4 of the top 6 in the 2nd half of the season. Compare that for instance, to United who will visit 4 of the top 6.
Manchester United have only had a higher points total in the first 15 games, in 2 of the 19 EPL seasons, yet find themselves second to the ‘noisy neighbours’. City are much more than noisy right now. Now that they have finally blinked, there is no margin for error.