Chelsea began the season with seven trophies in sight – now only one remains after a tie that exposed Manchester City's stronger development
The surge of adrenalin-fuelled belief had flared just as this breathless contest lurched into its final quarter. Demba Ba sparked it all by spinning from Matija Nastasic and volleying with an outstretched boot as he tumbled to the turf to score the first goal conceded by Manchester City in this season's FA Cup and, for 24 frantic minutes, Chelsea tore into their opponents like a team possessed. Yet, by the time the final whistle strangled their hope for good, all that remained for those clad in black was a familiar sense of choking disappointment.
The European champions have experienced it a few times during a season where, brutally speaking, they have regressed into nearly men. Back in August when these two sides collided at Villa Park, they had aspired to claim seven trophies and maintain all the momentum from Munich. One by one, those opportunities have slipped away. The Community Shield and European Super Cup were lost in August, the Champions League and, effectively, the Premier League in November, and the Fifa Club World Cup a month later. The Capital One Cup and now FA Cup have followed, with Chelsea left to pursue the one trophy they had not initially entered and, privately, must still curse they are in at all. The Europa League is all that remains in this campaign of transition.
Hoisting a trophy in Amsterdam next month would still constitute a fine achievement, leaving them holders of both elite Uefa competitions simultaneously, for a few days at least. But they must overcome Basel in the semi-finals, a regular stumbling block, to have that chance. As Chelsea players stood hands on hips around the centre-circle and watched City celebrate with their supporters, the one consolation from this defeat – that their cluttered schedule over the season's final fortnight has now been eased somewhat with no return to Wembley inked into the diary – must have felt like no consolation at all.
This game was still made by the holders' barnstorming if unlikely recovery in those latter stages. For more than an hour Chelsea had appeared drained, outmuscled by powerful opponents doing to them what Roberto Di Matteo's charges had done to Tottenham Hotspur in the same fixture a year ago. Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany were imposing, the 20-year-old Nastasic already a player of such stature in Serbia's side. Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez had been a constant menace, with even Samir Nasri contributing to complement the trademark industry from James Milner and Gareth Barry. Rafael Benítez's side had gasped just to keep up, eclipsed by the Frenchman's opener and Agüero's wonderfully looped header. In the circumstances, it seemed inconceivable that Chelsea might revive.
This, after all, was a seventh game in 19 days, and a 59th of term. That is 15 more than City have had to endure. Break it down further and, over the past five weeks, City have played six times compared with Chelsea's 11, a schedule that took them to Moscow last week and Bucharest last month. If the interim manager has rotated and refreshed where he could, for all that the omission of Frank Lampard and John Terry here will have further infuriated the club's support, he can do little to combat mental fatigue. His defenders and defensive midfield rather froze at times when City buzzed into range, not least at Barry's delivery for Agüero's goal. The lethargic start and sloppy concessions might be pinned to weary minds as much as energy-sapped limbs.
That is the theory, anyway, though it was rather undermined by the revival. How could players apparently exhausted conjure such a finish? Kompany suggested complacency had seeped into City's approach, that it was all "too comfortable", and the introduction of Fernando Torres, whose own confidence is soaring, clearly drove Benítez's side on. But the manager was not clinging to fatigue as a factor. "If you say it was then you cannot explain how we finished so strongly," he said. "We had to show more character in possession, and we did that in the second half. But give credit to Manchester City, a very good team who are so strong, physically and technically, with players who can make the difference."
That was a reminder of where Chelsea truly are. City have now overcome them three times this season and were the better team, too, in Benítez's first game in charge despite the goalless scoreline that afternoon, a reflection of the fact these teams finished first and sixth in the Premier League last year and are seven points apart in this season's table. The current league champions are simply further along in their development as a squad. This has been a frantic and, as yet, fruitless campaign.
But, while missing out on another showpiece will leave Chelsea smarting, it is more painful to acknowledge they are still seeking to catch City up.