A mere 1-0, but still so much more than that. Kevin De Bruyne continued his step-up as a truly top-class player this season, as Manchester City continued their strides forward as the team that now looks likeliest to top the table come the campaign’s end. Champions Chelsea weren’t so much beaten as dismissed, and given the type of properly serious lesson in the Premier League that they haven’t endured since this time last season, when they lost successive games to Liverpool and Arsenal.
In subjecting them to that, City also claimed the kind of momentum-propelling big victory that so often eluded them last season just when they seemed on the brink of something, and all because De Bruyne so elegantly yet so forcefully eluded the Chelsea defence. No one could get close to him in terms of performance, and the net effect of all that was that as well as having one player on a higher level, City always looked like they had one more player on the pitch. They were that good, and outmanoeuvred and outplayed Chelsea that much.
Guardiola got it very right, as Antonio Conte for once got it very wrong, a complete inversion of last season’s supremely intense matches between the two sides that Chelsea claimed six points from.
This encounter was a long way short of such excitement, but only because City looked so far ahead of the champions.
Those games last season were ludicrously fast and open, something that played into Chelsea’s hands, so it was all the more conspicuous that Conte looked to slow this game down; to close it down. It was by far his most defensive set-up in his time at Stamford Bridge yet, his most Jose Mourinho-like display. That was probably a huge compliment to Guardiola’s approach – but it didn’t do much for the Italian’s own side.
Aside from the fact that the more solid Cesar Azpilicueta started at right wing-back over the pacier Victor Moses, the champions were just so willing to sit deep, to congest the space around their box for fear of this rampantly kaleidoscopic City maximising the space and playing through them to pull them all over the place.
There was considerable risk to that from the off, as it meant City had so many attackers around their box for some real moments of danger. Gabriel Jesus almost caught Thibaut Courtois out when a ball was played back to him so very close to the Chelsea goalline, the ball just about bouncing over the bar rather than under it from the forward’s block. If the Belgian goalkeeper was grateful to luck at that moment, though, his team were very grateful to him just before half-time. Courtois showed all of his quality and some strong hands to forcefully keep out a Fernandinho header from a corner.
If Chelsea were living more dangerously than many might have expected, the flipside to this was that there was a constant danger any time they broke. City’s own willingness to play so high up left a lot of space in behind, that looked especially susceptible to the pace and link-up play of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata...or at least it did until the Spanish striker had to go off gesturing to his hamstring after 36 minutes.
He had ominously turned John Stones once or twice, and an N’Golo Kante cross had just eluded him, so his exit did more than just remove a focal point for Chelsea but also some of their fluency. Willian came on rather than Michy Batshuayi, something that was telling in itself, but he just couldn’t find the same fluency. Similarly, without the intelligence of Morata’s running, Conte’s attackers were instead being caught offside by that high line so much more often.
It meant that, as the game went on, City were able to play higher and higher towards Chelsea’s goal, get closer and closer until a goal effectively became inevitable.
There were moments in the second half when Conte’s side did look like they were just about maintaining control around their own box, but there was the constant threat that could be undone with one snapshot – like when Raheem Sterling’s volley went well over rather than into a few yards of unprotected net, or when Marcos Alonso had to throw himself across the area to make a brilliant block on a David Silva shot. And, finally, when De Bruyne let fly with an effort that let Chelsea know City would be so different this season.
Conte finally had no choice but to gamble, as he at last threw on Batshuayi along with Pedro. Hazard was taken off, having been someway short of the quality of display he’d shown in midweek against Atletico Madrid.
This was generally someway short of the ruthlessness and thrust Chelsea had shown in twice beating City last season, especially in that pulsating game at the Etihad.
They could have been further behind on 85 minutes, when Antonio Rudiger just about headed a cushioned Jesus volley off the line.
It didn’t matter, as Conte’s side are now even further behind City in the table. Guardiola actually got his first ever win over Chelsea, but that kind of detail didn’t seem to matter by the end either. City, in truth, looked far too good for such trivial stats – and perhaps far too good for this league.
Chelsea: Courtois; Rudiger, Christensen, Cahill; Azpilicueta, Kante, Bakayoko (Batshuayi, 73), Fabregas, Alonso; Hazard (Pedro, 72), Morata (Willian, 35).
Subs not used: Cabellero, Moses, Kenedy, Zappacosta.
Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Otamendi, Delph; Fernandinho, De Bruyne (Danilo, 90), Silva (Bernardo Silva, 76); Sterling, Jesus, Sane (Gundogan, 84).
Subs not used: Bravo, Mangala, Zinchenko, Yaya Toure.
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