It is FA Cup semi-final weekend, but just for a moment, cast your mind back to mid-August. The sun (remember that?) was shining, the country was suffering from a heavy dose of Olympic fever and Manchester City faced Chelsea in the Community Shield in a clash between the reigning Premier League and Champions League holders.
Even accounting for the pre-season optimism that inflicts all clubs (misplaced or otherwise) before a ball is kicked, there is nobody in the country that could have predicted such a fall from grace for both Chelsea and City on that hot Sunday afternoon.
For so many reasons, this season has not gone to plan for either club, and if you’d have told somebody what the following nine months would bring, they might have been tempted to question your sanity.
It was always going to be a tough ask for City to follow last year’s title win with a second consecutive triumph – the cliché goes that it is always more difficult to retain your title – but their attempted defence has been disgraceful.
With a flurry of off-field issues (Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez spring to mind) souring relations, the Citizens are 12 points adrift of Manchester United and Roberto Mancini should be ashamed of his effort, and that is before we even get on to the subject of Europe, where the Italian has failed dismally. Again.
As for Chelsea, where on earth do you start? A cool £70 million was spent in the summer on Eden Hazard and Oscar, among others, and a tilt at the title under Roberto Di Matteo was fully expected.
Ah, yes, Di Matteo, the club legend who was unceremoniously sacked by the all-conquering owner in favour of the most despised individual the club’s recent history.
It has brought civil war to Stamford Bridge and the club hasn’t recovered. Chelsea had started to struggle under the Italian and have been wholly inconsistent under Rafa Benitez ever since, and a season that started in competition for seven trophies could yet be a success or a disaster, such are the margins that the beleaguered manager is working under.
After defeats in the Community Shield (which City won 3-2), the European Super Cup and World Cup finals, Champions League Group stage elimination and Capital One Cup semi-final heartbreak, Chelsea have already failed in more tournaments than most clubs enter, but with a top-four position in their own hands and Europa League and FA Cup glory to play for, it could yet be a good season against all the odds.
What will happen in the other two is open for debate, but I don’t think Chelsea will be winning the FA Cup because I think Manchester City are good things to beat them at Wembley on Sunday.
Mancini’s men are 6/5, with the draw at 12/5 and the Blues 21/10, but I fully expect the Premier League holders to do the business.
Put simply, Manchester City are a better team. Nobody has been more critical of Mancini and his charges than I have this season, but they have a host of big-name players that can turn it on when these occasions arise – you only have to look at how they comprehensively outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford on Monday to see that.
And City have been in decent form, winning six of the last seven in all competitions to approach something near their best, albeit too late in the title race.
But it isn’t too late where the FA Cup is concerned and it is significant that one of those six victories was against Chelsea, when City were far too strong for a passive and desperately poor Blues side.
And that is the thing with this Chelsea team – you don’t know what you are going to get. Just as likely to lose at Southampton as win against Manchester United, the Blues seem to be stumbling from week to week with no coherent plan, a lack of team spirit and no real idea of what they are doing.
The amount of games they have is crippling, and as Benitez rotates his team into a spin – he doesn’t have any other choice – it is no wonder that Chelsea are so up and down.
Three wins and two defeats from their last five games across three different competitions sums them up and I can’t have them to beat a settled City team.
Mancini’s men have won three and drawn one of the last four meetings and will fancy their chances of scoring against a Chelsea team with just two clean sheets in eight fixtures.
Tiredness is a factor in that poor defensive return, and a fresh and focused City can make the most of a disorientated Blues side.
At Old Trafford, they played like a team that knew it was a big week for the football club and that it was time to turn it on.
They did so on Monday, and they can do it again at Wembley on Sunday. As such, the 6/5 is must-bet stuff.