Last season’s title defence was undermined on too many occasions by frailties at the back that stood in contrast to Chelsea’s consistently solid back four. This season, however, the roles have been reversed.
While Jose Mourinho’s side again floundered at Goodison Park to raise their goals against column to 12, City withstood Crystal Palace’s determined efforts to register a fifth successive clean sheet. An impressive start that will only strengthen belief ahead of tomorrow’s Champions League opener with Juventus.
The change in the form of Manuel Pellegrini’s back four has been profound. Eliaquim Mangala no longer looks an expensive misfit and Vincent Kompany has recovered the form that made him one of the Premier League’s outstanding centre-backs.
Kompany is entitled to feel satisfaction and relief that the mistakes that littered his play on occasions last season now appear to be a thing of the past and the City captain is in no doubt about the importance of a strong defence.
“It’s like building a house - you want the foundations to be strong and that’s what we’re doing at the moment, building good foundations,” said the Belgium international.
Pellegrini recognises the improvement of his centre-backs but his insistence that the back four can only operate effectively if the rest of the team is operating effectively was clearly demonstrated at Selhurst Park.
A crunching tackle by Yaya Toure could have earned greater punishment than a yellow card but it ended an opening spell when City had been pushed backwards by Palace’s aggressive and powerful approach.
With Fernandinho also continuing to develop in the holding midfield role, Kompany and Mangala were shielded impressively.
“It is very difficult to improve,” said Pellegrini. “Every player is different. Mangala, maybe it was his first year here in the Premier League. A lot of important players don’t play very well in their first year. Kompany knows that his performance last year was not what he must do, he is the captain of the team.
“What’s important is the reaction that they have, and the way we are playing. Not just Kompany and Mangala, because I think when you don’t win silverware it is not just one or two players, it is the squad, it is a lot of things that you must create. And not only think it is just the importance of two or three players.”
That platform ensured City were able to capitalise fully when Palace finally cracked and ‘keeper Alex McCarthy failed to effectively deal with Samir Nasri’s added time shot, allowing Kelechi Iheanacho to mark his second appearance with his first goal.
Prior to the goal, focus had been trained on Kevin De Bruyne’s impressive debut after the midfielder appeared as a 24th minute replacement for Sergio Aguero, injured by a poor challenge from Scott Dann and now a doubt to face Juventus. But Iheanacho’s intervention drew attention to the 18-year-old Super Eagle from Nigeria who has been promoted to the senior squad this season.
“You tell me about him!” said Kompany when asked about the teenager. “He’s the mystery man. He’s been around the club for a while, had a bit of difficulty sorting out his papers, work permit and stuff, but always been a great talent. He’s had a really good pre-season, even when he didn’t play well he scored.
“At the moment it looks like he’s third in the pecking order, and at his young age and at this kind of club, it’s a massive achievement already. It’s great for the club to have a young player coming through.”
The late goal was crushing for Palace who appeared set to follow victory over Chelsea with another eye-catching result, although their start has given cause for optimism.
“We won this game last year and you have to say we were better today. That’s football sometimes,” said Alan Pardew, the manager. “Those qualities we had, though, that spirit and fight in that game when we beat them are still there. But technically we’ve definitely improved.”
McCarthy 6; Kelly 6, Dann 7, Hangeland 8, Souare 7; Cabaye 8, McArthur7; Zaha 7, Puncheon 7 (Lee 83,6),Sako 6 (Gayle 67, 6); Bolasie 7 (Jedinak 80,6).
Mariappa, Campbell, Hennessey, Mutch.
Hart 7; Sagna 7, Kompany 8, Mangala 8, Kolarov 7; Jesus Navas 7, Fernandinho 8, Toure 7, Nasri 7 (Demichelis, 90); Bony 6 (Iheanacho 89, 7), Aguero 6 (De Bruyne 24, 9).
Caballero, Demichelis, Roberts, Otamendi, Garcia.
M Jones 5