It's been a strange season, all right.
Look at Blackburn Rovers. Here's a side that was not only left for dead, but ridiculed beyond belief. A side purchased by owners who, supposedly, didn't know about relegation. A side run by a manager, Steve Kean, who required personal security to protect him from his own supporters because results were going so pear shaped. And now? Rovers would be favored to stay out of the relegation drop -- you only had to watch Tuesday's game versus Sunderland to see why. The players were competing for their manager, there was belief, and while the stop-and-start, sloppy execution was nothing to behold, Blackburn bagged all three points.
Martin Olsson's sliding tackle in front of Nicklas Bendtner -- on the one play where the Dane actually sprinted -- summed it up: This was a group of players who have been mired in the battle at the bottom for so long that they intuitively know how to handle the pressure and grind out results. With Wolves and Wigan seemingly destined for the championship with each passing match, and QPR facing a frightening run-in (though the Hoops did come back to beat Liverpool 3-2 on Wednesday), Kean's crew should stay up. Then again, you never know.
A similar dynamic was playing out in the rarefied air atop the table on Wednesday when Chelsea traveled to Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City. The Blues had been written off many times under Andre Villas-Boas, but since AVB was sacked after a 1-0 loss to West Brom, the Blues looked revitalized -- four straight wins, including that magic night against Napoli in the Champions League. Fernando Torres even scored twice against Leicester City this past weekend (though, to be fair, it was Leicester City, a fact too often ignored in the hype). City, meanwhile, was coming off some tough results, having been bounced out of the Europa League and humiliated in the league away to Swansea City 1-0.
For most of the season, City had been league leader; yet the Sky Blues came into the tilt with Chelsea four points behind Manchester United. Did Roberto Mancini's men have the stomach for the fight? Like Blackburn at the bottom, would they gut out the wins? And could Chelsea continue its unbeaten run under interim head coach Roberto Di Matteo?
We received some answers, at least for a pleasant night in Manchester, after City came from behind to defeat Chelsea 2-1 and pull within a point of United. In so doing, Mancini's side set a Premier League record for the most successive home wins, 20, in the Premier League, surpassing United's record of 19 set last season. Oh, and Carlos Tevez made his return, too.
But before we get to that surreal substitution, what was there to talk about? Not much in the first half. The first 10 minutes were lively, with a couple of real chances: Samir Nasri chested down a lovely long ball over the top of the defense by Yaya Toure before smacking the crossbar, Petr Cech totally beaten; and Torres, looking in the mood, bobbed and weaved toward the defense before dishing to Juan Mata, whose effort drifted off the mark.
Soon after that, the match transmogrified into a nerve-rattling, anxious affair. For Chelsea, Torres looked strong and worked hard (likely to be his epitaph with the Blues), Ramires created a bit of havoc, and the entire team took a page of out the Martin O'Neill playbook -- lose possession and get behind the ball as quickly as possible. For City, the pace was slow, not unusual as Mancini's squad typically builds up from a more stately pace. Nigel de Jong was all but invisible, but Mancini's men -- playing without the preferred starting center back pairing of Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany -- ended the first 45 with a clean sheet.
Mario Balotelli should have scored when he intercepted a wayward Frank Lampard pass and had a one-on-one with the keeper, but his shot went wide. And, indeed, the final couple of breaks by both teams ended in rather sad affair, first with Ramires failing to pick up Torres in the box and giving away possession, then Nasri's through ball failing to find Pablo Zabaleta. Total wash.
In the second half, Nasri continued his man of the match performance, jinking Jose Bosingwa (on for the injured Branislav Ivanovic in the first half) before finessing a shot that Cech pushed onto his own crossbar, after which Lampard made a neat defensive play to keep David Silva from scoring. In the 60th minute, on a corner earned by Ramires, Mata fired the ball into the box. Yaya Toure headed it away and after what looked to be a clear handball by Gareth Barry (on at the start of the half for a sub-par Balotelli), it fell to Gary Cahill. The former Bolton defender took his shot, which deflected off of Yaya Toure, and the Blues were up 1-0.
It seemed to be all going Chelsea's way, preserving its unbeaten streak under manager John Terry -- sorry, Di Matteo -- with the side's organization spot on. Even David Luiz was turning in a disciplined performance at the back, heading away danger and sticking to his spot for most of the time. But the worm turned, as they say, after a few substitutions. Tevez came on for De Jong in the 66th minute and Torres, muttering in disgust, was taken off for Didier Drogba in the 73rd. Chelsea might not have gotten a goal from El Nino on the night, but in return the Blues relied on Drogba, a target man who looked off the pace and didn't put in near the effort.
And so it was that in the 78th minute, Michael Essien was rightly called for handball in the box. Off a corner, which was headed away by Lampard, Zabaleta fired a ball toward Essien, who had his hand up in the air. Clear penalty, which was cooly taken not by Tevez, but the Argentinean who has replaced him as Big Man on Campus, Sergio Aguero. Finally, after almost 80 minutes, a rather moribund, anxious sounding Eastlands came to life, the crowd trying to will on the players.
In the 85th minute, the players returned the favor. Nasri picked the ball up 30 yards from goal and charged forward down the inside-left channel. He passed to Tevez at the top of the box, who controlled the ball and immediately slipped in Nasri, who draws check off his line before scoring into the bottom-right corner. Etihad Stadium was delirious.
Of course, the moment Tevez came onto the pitch, you had to wonder: Would the player who refused to warm up for Mancini be the one to score? Could it be possible for the player who hadn't suited up for his club team for six months to the day -- 37 matches during that time -- do in Chelsea? After all, Tevez had scored six times against the Blues in the league: once for West Ham, once for United and four times for City. Well, he ended up not scoring but smartly, elegantly setting up the winning goal, the one that well could keep City in the title race and prove that despite a bit of wobbles of late, Mancini's men do have the stomach for the fight. Except, maybe, for Balotelli. The jury is still out on him. But before United play again, on Monday against Fulham, City could be two points ahead if it gets a win at Stoke. Won't be easy, but neither was this match.
Cynics will scoff at Tevez's inclusion to begin with, and one of the endearing images of the match will be after the second goal when a City fan held up a T-shirt that featured a mockup of the famous billboard: "Welcome to Manchester," with a picture of Tevez. It was yet another reminder that in football, as with most other things, pragmatism trumps principle. And City fans couldn't be happier about it.