Manchester City v Everton
Everton left Manchester City beaten but unbowed following what proved a brave but ultimately fruitless rearguard action.
It tells you everything about the contest and the reasons behind the visitors' emphasis that the decisive breakthrough was scored by a £30m substitute.
And there is a worthy in footnote in the fact that Mario Balotelli’s crucial strike was deflected on the way by a defender plucked from the Championship and nurtured into an England international.
Phil Jagielka was for the most part superb at the heart of the Everton defence and was particularly unfortunate to play an unwitting role in the Italian’s critical intervention.
Jagielka was probably shaded by central defensive partner Sylvain Distin who enjoyed a commanding display against one of his old clubs.
His defensive assuredness was a trait of the overall performance as the Blues looked to frustrate a club with nearly £150m worth of talent on the bench and have spent the thick end of £60m on left-backs alone.
But for a deflection they might well have achieved their goal.
The Blues aren’t used to losing at Eastlands – they had won the previous four meetings – and despite a defeat confirmed by James Milner’s late clincher, they won’t be unduly low going into a week that culminates in the Merseyside derby.
They defended stoutly in the face of inevitable pressure, their shape and focus leaving few gaps despite the hosts enjoying around 65 per cent possession.
Unfortunately, where they have managed to hurt City on the break in the past, they weren’t able to do so this time and were undone themselves by a combination of misfortune and their opponents’ superior firepower.
David Moyes opted to recall skipper Phil Neville and deploy the veteran as an anchorman in a bid to stem the creativity of City’s expensively assembled midfield.
And the former Manchester United man played his part as Everton enjoyed some early possession and got into their stride quickly.
If the first job was to get a foothold in the game, be organised and tight, that task was completed by the 20th minute with a wayward Sergio Aguero effort all the hosts had to show for their efforts.
In fact, David Silva was the only one getting the home fans excited – and that was by making the most of some early challenges.
Jack Rodwell and Phil Neville were both booked harshly for tangling with the Spaniard, while Leon Osman was also carded for a challenge on Yaya Toure.
Toure was then booked himself for scything down Seamus Coleman and with half an hour gone Howard Webb had been prolific with his yellow card.
But as the interval loomed the pressure grew and once Edin Dzeko had had fluffed his lines when well placed, Aguero drew an athletic save from Tim Howard.
The Blues offered little going forward with not much sticking to isolated frontman Tim Cahill and regimented defending very much the persuasion of their first half approach.
If it wasn’t Cahill looking to provide a presence up top it was Marouane Fellaini, and the Belgian made a nuisance of himself as the visitors enjoyed their first spell of possession for what seemed an eternity in the five minutes before half-time.
It may not have been aesthetically pleasing but Everton’s first half display would have been eye candy for admirers of the ugly side of the game.
As David Moyes said pre-match, you’re not going to outplay a team as lavishly assembled as City’s so it was about finding a way of getting something. For the Blues that meant a defensive gameplan that would have had coaches reaching for a notebook and pen.
The pattern changed little after the break but there was a reminder of the Blues' own attacking threat as Cahill glanced Coleman’s cross just over the bar.
Three corners in a row represented a welcome chance for Everton’s defenders to check out the penalty box at the other end of the pitch as a frustrated City looked to be running out of ideas.
That prompted Mancini to send for the enigmatic talents of Balotelli, while an attacking change was also forthcoming for the visitors with Louis Saha replacing Cahill, the Aussie limping off with Vincent Kompany’s studs leaving an impression on his shin.
Balotelli’s off the field antics have regularly generated the wrong sort of headlines, but on the pitch his talent is unquestionable and it took him mere minutes to make the difference.
A large slice of fortune helped him along the way, however, as his shot took a sizeable and decisive deflection off of the lunging Jagielka.
Inevitably that goal inflicted a gaping puncture in the Blues’ performance and a sloppy second strike merely confirmed defeat.
Fellaini saw a late shot cleared off the line but there was no consolation for the visitors who will now swiftly turn their attentions to a foe closer to home.