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Chelsea's win breathes new life into title race

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Phil McNulty | 07:44 UK time, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

At Stamford Bridge

As Chelsea's players ignored a raging storm to gather in a huddle, the renewed hope that spread around Stamford Bridge was stretching to the rest of the Premier League.

The Blues had finally made league leaders Manchester City blink after 15 games - and every managerial rival hoping to detect vulnerability in Roberto Mancini's team gave thanks to Andre Villas-Boas.

The Portuguese declared Chelsea's pursuit of the title open for business once more following a 2-1 win that grafted his new philosophies on to old values of resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness after City had threatened to overwhelm his side.

And back in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson's world suddenly seems a much better place as Chelsea's victory keeps City's advantage over Manchester United at just two points.

Even those on the fringes of the race will have raised a smile.

lampsgetty595.jpgLampard is mobbed by his team-mates after scoring the winner. Photo: Getty

It was hardly a night to detect cracks in City's armour given they were magnificent for 25 minutes, but the arrival of fallibility in their league form presents a new challenge for Mancini's expensive and impressive squad.

City have gone out of the Champions League and suffered their first league loss in the last week. It's not a blip exactly, but a credible test of potential champions is how they respond to the first big disappointments.

Mancini was philosophical but frustrated, not just with officialdom but also the carelessness of City, who, as they did in the recent draw at Liverpool, toyed with their opponents in the early stages before losing control and conceding momentum.

It only cost City two points at Liverpool, but the price was more expensive at Stamford Bridge, although Mancini had a very good case for his post-match complaints about referee Mark Clattenburg.

With City leading 1-0 after Mario Balotelli's goal inside two minutes, David Silva appeared to be clearly upended by Jose Bosingwa. It wasn't a penalty, according to Clattenburg, who then failed to punish the Spaniard's spectacular fall. If not a penalty, then presumably a dive? Neither, apparently.

It was a decisive moment, an incident that heartened Chelsea and unsettled City. Against the run of play, Raul Meireles equalised and, after Gael Clichy's nightmare match was ended by a second yellow card, substitute Frank Lampard proved there was life in the old dog yet with a late penalty after the raised arms of Joleon Lescott blocked Daniel Sturridge's goal-bound shot.

For Villas-Boas and Chelsea, it continued a run of results that have increased the 34-year-old Portuguese manager's authority, given him a greater measure of control, demonstrated his tactical flexibility and his willingness to fight his club's corner, even against those who have no wish to fight him for it.

Villas-Boas couches much of his analysis in coach's techno-speak, describing Chelsea's retreat from defending with a high line as "reaching the zone of comfort in the medium block" - but it has been the return of some of the basic, old-fashioned steel and dogged determination that has done much to help reinvigorate their season.

And they needed it on Monday to survive an opening spell from City that threatened to blow them away with the same force as the winds and rain that lashed west London throughout an enthralling encounter.

Chelsea dug deep and, once they wrestled momentum from City, refused to hand it back, although they were aided by numerical advantage.

In Villas-Boas, they have a feisty, fascinating leader. The spiky nature was on show again in his after-match inquest - not the "slap in the face" for the media that followed victory against Valencia, but certainly a little slap on the wrist.

It has been a good few days for Villas-Boas and Chelsea, topping their Champions League group and moving closer to the leading pack in domestic competition. But a polite suggestion that he may recently have stumbled on his successful formula was emphatically swept away. "I don't stumble across things," he said. "If we stumbled across things we would be called incompetent but we are competent people."

He likes a verbal joust, also attacking claims he had ordered players to celebrate goals with him. More will come before the season's end.

More tests await Villas-Boas and Chelsea, particularly at Tottenham before Christmas, but this was a big result for coach and team. To beat the previously unbeatable, at least in the league, brought a thunderous Stamford Bridge to its feet and Chelsea's players together in celebration - some of the old swagger was back at the final whistle.

It is not only Chelsea's team that will gain confidence, so will their young manager.

Mancini, even in defeat, can reflect on a superb start to the season in the knowledge that City's position at the head of the Premier League is not false. The trick now is to ensure the first league setback is corrected as swiftly as possible, starting against Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

If City had survived to earn a point with 10 men at Chelsea, it would have amounted to a real statement of intent about their strength and ability to cope in such adversity. To fall short seven minutes from time does not amount to a calamity but the manner in which they passed over complete command of the game will not be lost on Mancini.

Some of City's play in the opening passage was glorious, flowing and graceful. Sergio Aguero produced moments of genius while Silva and Balotelli played around him.

Chelsea, however, have shown City can be beaten and they, along with Manchester United, Spurs and anyone else with even the slightest aspirations to the title, will study the league leaders response in the hope of detecting further flaws they might exploit.

City can close down part of that debate with a convincing win against Arsenal on Sunday - but this first defeat has finally given their rivals something to cling to.


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