Manchester City host Chelsea in an all-important Premier League duel on Wednesday which could act as a milestone in a season which has altered the landscape at the elite summit of English football.
While the home side are closer to becoming champions for the first time since 1968, the Londoners are suffering their hardest campaign under the watchful eye of owner Roman Abramovich, who recently dispensed with the services of his seventh different manager in eight seasons, Andre Villas-Boas.
The young Portuguese replaced Carlo Ancelotti at the Stamford Bridge helm and followed in the footsteps of Claudio Ranieri, fans’ favourite Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink as managers to have worked for the Russian billionaire. Villas-Boas had presided over a debilitating nine months which left Chelsea trailing in fifth place in the Premier League and potentially missing out on UEFA Champions League qualification for next season.
The Londoners have also made hard work of this year’s quest for the Champions League, long desired by the Blues and their owner, and were summarily beaten 3-1 in their Round of 16 first leg by Serie A side Napoli.
However, a rousing performance in the return at Stamford Bridge earlier this week ended with Chelsea winning 4-1 after extra time, thereby securing their place in the quarter-finals and maintaining hopes of lifting a trophy they have never previously won.
Villas-Boas’ attempt to ease out some of the older members of his squad in favour of younger talent encountered problems too, before Abramovich decided to act decisively at the beginning of this month. Former player Roberto Di Matteo has been placed in temporary charge until the end of the season and has been tasked with rescuing a spot in the Premier League’s top four.
Chelsea reacted well in the Italian’s first two matches, recording back-to-back to victories - over Birmingham City in the FA Cup and Stoke City in the league - after Villas-Boas’ final match in charge, a 1-0 defeat by West Bromwich Albion which the 34-year-old had accepted was “not good enough” just hours before his sacking.
“We don't like where we are in the table and it's going to be tough to achieve what we are trying to achieve,” Di Matteo explained. “For us, it's vital to finish fourth in the table. That's the target.”
An FA Cup quarter-final tie at home to Leicester City offers hope of a trip to Wembley and a real chance of a trophy, but securing Champions League football once again is their biggest task ahead of Di Matteo.
City eyeing historic championship
City, on the other hand, have reaped the rewards of keeping faith with Italian manager Roberto Mancini, who has juggled the demands of a genuine title challenge and a maiden Champions League campaign while attempting to keep a squad packed full of stars happy.
Although Carlos Tevez did stray out of line when he refused to come on as a substitute during a European tie with Bayern Munich in September last year, even the Argentinian has been recently welcomed back into a happy fold which also survived the short-term loss of talisman Yaya Toure to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
A slip-up at Swansea City last weekend, where they were beaten 1-0 by Brendan Rodgers’ flowing side, came at a bad time for City. Rivals Manchester United won their seventh game out of eight in the Premier League to snatch a one-point advantage at the top of the standings for the first time since October 2011.
Having led the way for a large portion of the season, City now have ten games left to claim the title, beginning with Chelsea on Wednesday and potentially culminating when they entertain United at the Etihad Stadium on 30 April.
“We shall fight against them [United] until the end. We have another ten games to finish this championship,” Mancini insisted after his team were beaten in Wales. “The season is long and the situation changes every week. It is important that we stay together. It is better to stay at the top, of course, but we are now a point behind. I think this championship will be decided with two games to go.”
If City can produce anything like the performance they mounted at Old Trafford earlier in the season, when they humiliated their local rivals with a 6-1 thrashing of the Red Devils, then the possibility of lifting the Premier League title on home soil on 13 May, the final day of the campaign, remains. Tricky tests wait along the way, such as trips to face Stoke and Arsenal away from home, but City will not give up as they stand on the threshold of a new era.
Mancini, though, twice a Serie A title winner as a player and three times with Inter Milan as a manager, is prudent enough to know that all of their focus must be on Chelsea first. Wounded they may be, but the Blues have plenty left to fight for and are from willing to give up their position as one of the Premier League’s top sides in a hurry.