Manchester City only needed a Kevin de Bruyne cracker to see off the champions at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening. Pep Guardiola’s side maintained the top of the table pace with Manchester United, and extended their lead over the champions to six points. Their 1-0 victory was the biggest sign yet that City can keep their flying early form up, even without Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero.
Chelsea saw one of their best first half chances come in the opening minutes when Alvaro Morata flicked a header towards the far post. It won’t have concerned Ederson too dearly, and little else did in the first 45.
Following on from a physical start by the Chelsea midfield, Tiemoue Bakayoko gave up a free kick to Kevin de Bruyne in a decent position. The shot was ultimately of little trouble to Thibaut Courtois, however, who caused the majority of his own problems early on by holding onto the ball too long.
The first 20 minutes dragged, as Manchester City dominated possession and Chelsea let them do just that. Things briefly ignited around the 25 minute mark, as the Blues bounced the ball around City’s box and built brief pressure. An electric counter-attack followed for the visitors, but Raheem Sterling messed up a relatively simple cross.
The most concerning moment of the evening for Antonio Conte and Chelsea was in the 33rd minute. With the ball being tapped around by City’s defenders, Morata went down on his haunches and immediately requested for a substitute. He walked off, and was replaced by Willian. After his wonderful start as a Blue, that injury could have a massive impact on Chelsea’s season.
Other than the tension of such a huge match, the rest of the half was tedious. Chelsea’s gameplan was effective, and City were happy to hold the ball. Tactically it was intriguing, but events of note were few and far between.
A bullet Fernandinho header from a de Bruyne corner called for a sharp save from Courtois in the 45th minute. It was the only save worthy of a highlights package from either ‘keeper in the first half.
The second half began along the same pattern. City had far more than their fair share of the ball, but their clearest early opportunity was a volley from Sterling when the ball fell to him on the edge of the box from a corner.
Fernandinho later scythed down Eden Hazard. The Belgian remained the Blues’ only hope, and got off a powerful near post shot from a clever reverse pass from the resulting free kick. Ederson dealt with it easily.
City ramped up the pressure afterwards. David Silva had a shot blocked by Marcos Alonso, as they carved Chelsea open for the first time.
Moments later, Chelsea’s defence and midfield were split wide open. De Bruyne found himself with space on the edge of the box, and smashed a left-footed drive past Courtois. An inch-perfect one-two with Gabriel Jesus created the chance, and it was the Brazilian’s first time lay-off right into the path of de Bruyne that gave the former Blue the chance to produce yet another moment of brilliance.
A particularly sweet moment for the Belgian, you would imagine, given his rejection at Stamford Bridge.
Naturally the match opened up as Chelsea’s defence pushed higher, and the midfield trio began to roam further into City’s half. Conte finally turned to his bench, too, as Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko were replaced by Michy Batshuayi and Pedro.
Chelsea finally stepped onto the front foot. Pedro – as he so often seems to – troubled the City defence with runs in behind, but the Spaniard made a foolish decision to backheel a driven Alonso cross rather than shoot with his left. A few moments later, a lofted ball to the back post fell to Cesar Azpilicueta as Fabian Delph was caught out of position. The ever-reliable Spaniard could not keep his cross away from Ederson, however.
City quickly dictated again, though, and sapped the sting from Chelsea’s substitute-boosted momentum. Sloppiness from Willian continued to break up moves, with the Brazilian having possibly his worst appearance in a Chelsea shirt.
Even in the final 10 minutes, City were the more likely side to find the net. Whether down to fatigue from their midweek heroics in Madrid or individual inferiority, Chelsea could not live with Pep Guardiola’s side. The fact it finished at only one is testament to Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rüdiger and Gary Cahill’s performances.
Christensen had Chelsea’s final significant effort on goal, as a leaping header from a wide free-kick went way into the crowd. Of course, it had come from a moronic lunging foul by Nicolas Otamendi – who had been untested for the majority of the match.
The high pressing City was almost perfect throughout, and stopped the hosts from controlling the tempo for any period. Cesc Fabregas, in particular, was unable to get on the ball and constantly bypassed in midfield. It was almost perfect from City, but the fitness of de Bruyne – who has been the player of the season so far – is a concern after he limped off in added time.
Manchester City emphatically passed the toughest test of their season. Guardiola’s men were already title favourites, and performances like this make it even harder to look past them. Chelsea were outplayed, Conte was outthought, and they are already six points off the top.