Roberto Di Matteo remained philosophical after watching his side get beaten by Manchester City in the FA Community Shield at Villa Park, and pointed to the sending off of Branislav Ivanovic shortly before the break as the game’s turning point.
Fernando Torres had given us the lead with a smart flick in the 38th minute, but moments later the game was turned on its head when Ivanovic was dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Aleksandar Kolarov.
Yaya Toure equalised for Roberto Mancini’s side early in the second half before goals from Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri left us with a mountain to climb. Substitute Ryan Bertrand pulled one back late on to set up a frantic finish but we were unable to force an equaliser, ensuring the first trophy of the campaign headed north.
‘Yes, it probably changed the game in favour of Manchester City,’ admitted the manager. ‘We competed very well up to that point. We were in the lead, I was happy to be going in at half-time with that lead. We knew the second half was always going to be difficult with 10 men.
‘I watched it and I thought there was no intention from our player to hurt the opponent. It was a sliding tackle, he got the ball as well. Sometimes the red card is given and sometimes not, but there was no intention.’
Eden Hazard, our summer acquisition from Lille, started his first high-profile game for the club, and quickly became the target of abuse from Manchester City supporters who believed he’d gone to ground too easily following an early run.
The young Belgian, however, was our biggest attacking threat during the first half, and did enough to suggest that he could have a significant impact on our fortunes over the course of the next nine months.
‘He was lively, he caused them some problems,’ said Di Matteo. ‘He had a couple of good opportunities and attempts.
‘He’s playing on the left and finding his feet with Ashley [Cole], but he showed some glimpses of his quality and I’m sure he’ll be a big success for us.’
Torres, who enters the new season under a heavy weight of pressure following the departure of Didier Drogba, looked sharp throughout, and while Di Matteo was understandably pleased with the efforts of his lone striker, he explained that the work ethic of the group as a whole is what’s most important.
‘I thought Torres moved very well and was a danger. He worked hard for the team, scored the goal, it was his first 90 minutes, he’s only been back a few weeks,’ said the Italian.
‘We operate as a team, [Daniel] Sturridge had an impact when he came on, so did [Ryan] Bertrand, it’s not just about one player.’
It would be fair to say that it hasn’t been an ideal pre-season in terms of results, but that will certainly not worry Di Matteo if three points are secured when we kick-off our campaign at Wigan next Sunday.
An improvement on last season’s sixth-place finish is clearly imperative, and the manager pointed to this afternoon’s opponents as the team to overcome if we are to finish top of the pile next May.
‘They are the champions, we have to catch up 25 points from last season,’ he said. ‘They are favourites, there’s no doubt about it.
‘Manchester United will be chasing City as well, they have a strong squad, I’m not sure if they will make any more signings but they have a strong team.’