Never has the adage ‘there’s no such thing as a friendly game of football’ been more apt than for Sunday’s Community Shield clash between Manchester City and Chelsea. The players of both sides were fired up from the first whistle in what turned out to be a thrilling and bitterly fought contest.
Though City will undoubtedly be pleased to have won more silverware, Mark Lawrenson’s description of the Community Shield being a “glorified friendly” does have an air of truth about it – this is certainly a match where the confidence gained from winning is more valuable than the trophy itself. That said, the performances of both sides provided a good insight into what we can expect from the teams and from individuals this season.
Chelsea came into the game on the back of an indifferent preseason, having let Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Jose Bosingwa depart the club in the summer. Though much was made of these departures in the build-up to the match, only Drogba’s departure should have given any cause for concern. As it turns out, Drogba’s exit would appear to have rid Fernando Torres of the mind-forged manacles that held him back last season. The Spaniard was dangerous from the start and looked much more like the phenomenal talent he was at Liverpool, and his well-taken goal will only add to his confidence going into the start of the new season.
Eden Hazard was exposed to the harsh realities of English football for the first time since joining Chelsea and showed glimpses of the quality that made him a star at Lille. However, there were signs that he could struggle with the physicality of English football and he did little to endear himself to English supporters by taking a rather theatrical fall after very minimal contact from Yaya Toure. His tumble in the twentieth minute of the game smacked of desperation to exhibit his flair, but if Hazard can learn to adapt to the more physical nature of Premier League football, as David Silva had to, he has the potential to live up to his self-professed greatness.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was Ivanovic’s sending-off, which ultimately gave Man City a more comfortable win than the scoreline would suggest, and a lacklustre performance from John Obi Mikel.
Ivanovic had a relatively solid performance until his reckless challenge on Kolarov gave referee Kevin Friend no choice but to send him off, contrary to Andy Townsend’s perplexingly stubborn assertion that it was a harsh decision. Mikel, on the other hand, gave away possession far too cheaply and his performance only served to remind Chelsea fans that they were still searching for someone to fill the void left by injury-striken Michael Essien. In addition, Ashley Cole looked off the pace and at times struggled with City’s attacks down the right. Chelsea fans will be hoping and praying that this was merely due to the usual pre-season rustiness, rather than a sign that Cole is well into the twilight of his career.
For City, Carlos Tevez marked his return with a fabulous strike from the edge of the box and looked truly world-class once more, having reportedly shed a stone during the summer break. Vincent Kompany was his usual imperious self and while Yaya Toure was far less adventurous than when at his best, the giant Ivorian gave everyone a reminder of his class with a powerful shot to level the game shortly after half-time.
Perhaps the most significant part of Manchester City’s performance was their new-look 3-5-2 formation, which has clearly been implemented to facilitate playing Aguero and Tevez in tandem, and to avoid the potential isolation of a lone striker – a problem which was a source of much frustration for City last season.
Though the system appeared to work well for City, having three at the back inevitably places extra pressure on the defenders, which was exemplified by Stefan Savic’s performance. Savic had a decidedly poor season for City in the last campaign and whilst this wasn’t by any means his worst performance in City colours, it did little to allay fears that the defending champions have remarkably little depth at centre back. Another minor cause for concern was James Milner’s performance; more specifically his attacking performance. As in Euro 2012, his selection was almost certainly based upon his ability to provide defensive cover. Milner actually had a reasonable game, but despite getting in behind Ashley Cole on several occasions, he was often closed down unnecessarily by waiting too long to deliver a cross and wasted opportunities that City had to stretch their lead further. To some this will seem like unfair criticism but with Arsenal and Chelsea likely to provide far stiffer competition than last season, City can ill afford to waste chances to the extent they did last season.
In terms of what we learned about the City and Chelsea’s prospects for the coming season, the Community Shield merely confirmed what most people had already predicted – City will still be the team to beat, irrespective of whether they end up making any big name signings this transfer window, and Chelsea will be reinvigorated by their triumph in the Champions League and will be realistic title contenders.