Chelsea's rock proved his quality again at Manchester City, but only he can decide if going to the World Cup is even a possibility
The last time Manchester City failed to beat the opposition goalkeeper on their own ground they finished the match with Roque Santa Cruz in attack. There were angry, mutinous chants during that 0-0 draw against Birmingham protesting about Craig Bellamy being loaned to Cardiff City, and none of the goodwill that Roberto Mancini encountered later in his tenure. "Fans abuse Mancini after Manchester City draw blank," was the Guardian's headline. That was November 2010, 11 months into Mancini's reign and back when a banner at Old Trafford counted the number of years since City won a trophy. It feels like a different era entirely.
The history lesson is important because it puts into context the expertise of Chelsea's defending in Manchester on Monday. No other away side had kept out City in 61 games, and the previous 18 had totted up 72 goals on Manuel Pellegrini's watch. Chelsea had heard all the sneering comments about parking the bus. What they did was far more adventurous, but it did also remind the sport that defending at its highest level is never to be derided. Nobody can doubt Chelsea's competitive courage going into the business end of the season, particularly bearing in mind the ongoing renaissance of the man in the middle of it all, forehead scarred, wearing a seen-it-all-before expression and making it absolutely clear this team does not bend for anyone.
John Terry will always divide opinion. It has not always been easy to embrace him and it will never be straightforward campaigning on his behalf, so perhaps it is best to take personality out of it and just consider Terry the centre-half, the man who heads the ball away, who plays at the back but leads from the front and gives the impression on nights such as Monday that any half-chance for the opposition constitutes a personal affront. The ultimate big-game player, you might say. Or as José Mourinho put it, "the best central defender in the Premier League, 2013-14."
Mourinho loves to discuss this subject, not least because it is another way to identify what he perceives as a flaw in the previous manager, Rafael Benítez. Others might argue on behalf of Per Mertesacker after a season of authority in the heart of Arsenal's defence. Yet Mourinho is not exaggerating the scale of Terry's impact since returning to the team and it is difficult not to marvel bearing in mind a member of England's backroom staff confided during the last European Championship that it was a "miracle" he was capable of performing at any decent level, such was the battering he had taken from playing through injuries and putting his body on the line. Twenty months on, it is an extraordinary feat of endurance that the 33-year-old has not missed a single minute in the league this season.
Inevitably, Roy Hodgson will have to brace himself for more questions about whether it is the time to usher Terry back into the England team. Mourinho certainly thinks his captain deserves to add to his 78 caps. "I think (Phil) Jagielka did a very good job but John is playing amazingly well," the Chelsea manager said. "Now it is up to the FA, to Roy and to John. The decision they make is the decision I accept."
It is a bit more complicated than that, of course. For starters, Terry is officially retired from international football and would need to undo that decision before Hodgson could think about it seriously. Terry let it be known a while back that he wanted another chance, but he then informed Hodgson he did not know where those stories had come from and re-iterated publicly that he was not going back, even with a World Cup on the horizon. Since then, there has been absolutely no indication of another change in direction. Indeed, there are people around him who say there is no chance of it happening.
For his part, Hodgson has frequently stated – to the point of exasperation – that he wants to show loyalty to the players who helped the team through the qualification process. An injury build-up might shift his position, as it did with Rio Ferdinand last year, but a recall for Terry would still represent a considerable volte-face bearing in mind the politics and history behind it. The question was asked in San Marino last March and Hodgson's response was withering. "Maybe while we're talking about John we could talk about Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. How far back do you want us to go? Where do we stop? Should Michael Owen come out of retirement every time we can't score a goal?"
Nobody can say it is ideal, though, that on the back of the Ferdinand issue England will probably be going into a second successive tournament while a player being acclaimed as the best of his type in the country is not in the manager's thoughts. Sir Alex Ferguson makes a relevant point in his latest autobiography. "Centre-backs were the foundation of my Manchester United sides. Always centre-backs." An accomplished partnership provides the stability for any successful team. It also gives the full-backs the encouragement to push forward and double up on the opposition with wide-midfield players. Jagielka and Cahill have done more right than wrong since establishing themselves as Hodgson's first-choice pairing, but there is still a portfolio of evidence that Mourinho is correct – and that an all-Chelsea pairing of Terry and Cahill would be an upgrade.
Chelsea's total of 44 goals scored from 24 league games is three fewer than the leaders Arsenal, 24 inferior to City and 14 worse off than Liverpool in fourth. Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto'o and Demba Ba have 11 between them - to put it into context, the same number as Loïc Rémy has managed for Newcastle. "It is so difficult for us to score a goal now," he lamented before leaving the Etihad.
So much focus has been on these shortcomings, however, it has barely gone noticed that they have conceded only 20 goals, making them the most parsimonious team in the country. Cahill is not flawless, but another warrior alongside Terry on the days when a defence requires its utmost concentration and players who will give everything to get their bodies in front of the ball. César Azpilicueta deserves more acclaim for his performances in what used to be known as Ashley Cole's position while Branislav Ivanovic is always a sturdy opponent and the two holding midfielders, David Luiz and particularly Nemanja Matic, demonstrated an understanding of their positions that was not always evident with their counterparts in light blue, Yaya Touré and Martín Demichelis.
Plainly, Mourinho is willing to accept that his team do not have enough manpower in attack, citing the goals issue again when he interrupted a question about it being a three-horse title race to downplay Chelsea's chances and describe it more like "two big horses and a little horse who needs milk and to learn how to jump".
Instead, he is trying to compensate for an obvious deficiency by making sure his team have the defensive togetherness and know-how that can make them champions in a very different way. That does not mean they are exclusively defence-minded, as City can now testify, but it is their core strength and it is Terry who underpins so much of it for the "little horse" – which is not bad for a player who looked destined for the knacker's yard not so long ago.