City-Chelsea serves as early-season indicator of this year's title race
Manchester City and Chelsea clash at the Etihad (live, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET) in a game that feels like an early-season referendum on this year's Premier League title race. Chelsea, reeling after a week of controversy about their medical staff meet a surging Manchester City side that look eager to atone for last year's limp title defense.
On paper, this should be a classic, a meeting between two teams that are arguably England's best. But, when one of those teams is Chelsea, well, nothing's that simple. For one thing, Chelsea come into the game dogged by yet another controversy of their own making. For another, Jose Mourinho is loathe to get into a shooting match with a potential rival, preferring instead to choke off the game.
Mourinho, of course, might be better advised to choke off his tendency to go on diatribes. The Portuguese gaffer managed to shoot himself and his team in the foot this last week with an ill-advised rant against the members of his medical staff. For those of you living under a rock, Mourinho railed against the well-respected and popular club doctor Eva Carneiro and team physio John Fearn for entering the field of play last week to treat Eden Hazard. The fact that both doctors, having been waved on by the referee, were ethically required to do so, seemed to escape the Chelsea manager's notice. Mourinho then compounded the error by banning both from the team bench and demoting Carneiro.
The duo have been widely supported by the medical establishment, and more than one person has wondered what kind of example it sets to have a club boss deny an injured player treatment to simply give his team a perceived advantage. Carneiro is now understood to be seeking legal advice after her demotion. And Chelsea's board, which is famously adverse to bad publicity under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, is said to be furious at the manager for his display of petulance.
All this might mean Mourinho will be happy to get back to the business of, you know, actually playing games. But given that Chelsea are off to a sluggish start, losing the Community Shield to Arsenal and then drawing last week at home to Swansea, maybe not. Keeper Thibaut Courtois is suspended for the match and Oscar is a doubt after suffering a knock in training. Diego Costa, owner of some brittle hamstrings, is said to be fully fit. His counterparts up top -- French striker Loic Remy and former Manchester United forward Radamel Falcao -- have looked anything but convincing.
Chelsea have also begun to show strains at the back, with Branislav Ivanovic looking a half-step slow and John Terry nearing his expiration date. Both men have been rocks in the backline for many years, but there is increasing concern over their mobility, a legacy of both age and Mourinho's distaste for squad rotation.
City are the team of the week after their flashy 3-0 demolition of West Bromwich. While Chelsea are no West Brom, you did get the sense in the opener that the Citizens are back to caring about the league title. So jaded last year -- and also noticeably hurt by the stresses placed on their players by the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup -- City look sharp and forceful this year.
Yaya Toure was man of the match last Monday, turning in a fine show with a single stunning goal -- even if he got credit for a strike actually put in by David Silva. No matter, both men are invaluable to the side, and as long as they are in form and they keep racking up wins, fans at the Etihad will be happy.
"All of them, not only Vincent and Yaya and players who had a lot of criticism, they are not thinking about why they were criticized," Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini told reporters on Saturday. "They are thinking about their performances. They want to be important players and win titles."
He added: "The important thing for them is to be ambitious, to have a winning mind, to try to continue to win titles and improve in Europe. They have a lot of challenges and our most important players are in their best ages."
Sergio Aguero, still shaking off a nagging ankle injury, is nonetheless likely to start. While former Liverpool winger and expensive purchase Raheem Sterling continues on the prowl for his first league goal in a light blue shirt. Gael Clichy and Fabian Delph are out with injuries.
Last week's results are why City are the bookmaker's favorites -- but history actually favors Chelsea. Mourinho has only lost twice against Pellegrini in a dozen outings. Moreover, Chelsea are historically strong starters, unbeaten in 28 league games played in the month of August.
But what can be guessed is that this will be a tight affair. Look for Nemanja Matic to play as the destroyer, with Chelsea looking to bottle up Silva and Sterling, and allow the far-less dangerous Jesus Navas freedom to run into trouble. Aguero is likely to be shoved about by Gary Cahill and Terry while Costa will like his chances against the erratic Vincent Kompany on the run. The X-factor in the game is likely to be Cesc Fabregas, who can be brilliant -- or can disappear.
Will it be the type of guns-blazing thriller we saw in Tblisi, Georgia on Tuesday between Barcelona and Sevilla? Probably not. But it could be a tense, tactical and telling match that sets one team on course for the title.