Mario Balotelli could lay his 15 goals in 29 City appearances on the table against Sergio Agüero's 24 in 41 as Carlos Tevez hovered on the bench. With numbers like these Roberto Mancini would hope that the pair could fire the club all the way to a first championship in 44 years. The problem in this theory is Balotelli's split football personality that has also acquired seven yellow cards, one red and the kind of fitful display last time out, against Sporting Lisbon, that has Mancini yanking at his hair. Handed another opportunity to make things happen, his best chance came on 29 minutes just as Tevez was warming up. A Frank Lampard howler gifted the ball to Balotelli and as he raced at Petr Cech the Etihad Stadium rose to witness him fluff his lines, managing only to make the keeper save. Taken off at the break – for reason unknown – Mancini will find it hard to bet the bank on him.
The team sheet already a collector's item for featuring Tevez among the replacements for the first time following his prolonged hiatus, Fernando Torres joining him there in the Chelsea starting XI before Didier Drogba added to the curiosity value. The opening suggested this was a good call by Robert Di Matteo, an impression that faded as the contest aged and he was substituted on 72 minutes – for Drogba – greeting his manager with a grimace as he passed on the way to the bench. The problem, as it always is with Torres, was his reliance on the premium service that he requires and which had been lacking from his colleagues – Drogba is able to thrive on the scraps offered his Spaniard competitor. Torres's best bits could be filed under no-end-product or a finishing failure from team-mates. Early on, he created an opening for Juan Mata but his countryman blasted high; how the striker would have loved the chance himself.
Ahead of a raucous evening here, Mancini had said: "Tonight we continue our battle to be Premier League champions. There are ten games to go and if we win them all then we finish as number one. That is, of course, easier to say than it is to achieve but when people ask me if we can do it I say, 'Why not?'" The longer a goalless City went on and they fell behind the more the answer was the worrying disconnect between brain and sky-blue boot as passes were sprayed awry and a restlessness spread to the home faithful with Yaya Toure starting in on his familiar berating of Balotelli before he departed the piece. This had Mancini shuffling in fury and you felt the cushion of three goals might be needed to settle the place down and remind the Blue millionaires why they led the division for nearly seven months. In the end, only one was needed for a vital win.
As the festivities began Chelsea were three points behind Arsenal, who were at Everton, and just four off Tottenham Hotspur who hosted Stoke City, with this encounter against the title pretenders offering a Chelsea form barometer ahead of a run-in that now comprises Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, Fulham, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Queens Park Rangers, Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers. City offered the greater threat in the first half and at the close, with Samir Nasri hitting the bar before the break, but in Ramires, Torres and Mata there were individual flashes of light. The problem on this showing is that the final ball required to kill teams off and gather the points needed to make up that gap can be lacking, with even Gary Cahill's goal requiring a touch of fortune. Ahead of those challenges they can, though, still take heart at giving City a proper game.
Twelve goals for, three against and all four matches won was the interim manager's count since taking over from André Villas-Boas as he sent out a side captained by Frank Lampard which had Mikel John Obi anchoring midfield and Torres up top. A case could be made for all three's inclusion being throws of the dice but when Cahill's deflected shot gave Chelsea the lead and took City towards frantic on the mood-scale the sense was that again Di Matteo was continuing to offer Roman Abramovich a convincing audition for the permanent role. Standing throughout like a diminutive doorman in the technical area, the Villas-Boas raincoat replaced by a coat of fine Italian wool, the man in black offered a hand to a verse of "There's only one Di Matteo" from the delirious travelling support. Could his Russian owner ever begin to think the same?