Three points on Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
This was a performance of champions from Chelsea and a meltdown from nine-man Manchester City. Those are the basic tenets of this immensely impressive 3-1 away win but barely tell the story of this utterly remarkable match.
City manager Pep Guardiola will regret a series of missed chances, defensive errors and referee calls, as City should have scored so much more than a fortuitous Gary Cahill own goal on the stroke of half time.
That still shouldn’t take away from Chelsea’s reaction, though. This yet again was the response of title-winners from Antonio Conte’s side.
City didn’t just lose the game, but they lost their heads. They ended the game with both Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho sent off by referee Anthony Taylor as the frustration of it all got to them.
There was a lot to be frustrated about. Having created a series of chances that saw Kevin De Bruyne inexplicably hit the bar with the easiest of opportunities from close range, they also saw David Luiz shoulder Aguero when through on goal and Ilkay Gundogan go down in the box.
They were still in control, though, but Chelsea couldn’t be beaten. For the second match in a row, after last week’s 2-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur, Conte’s men came from behind to roar through their opponents.
On the hour, surprise starter Cesc Fabregas played a glorious ball forward for Diego Costa, who easily brushed off the hapless Nicolas Otamendi to equalise.
The game had fundamentally changed. City no longer had the same grasp on it and couldn’t get to grips with Chelsea’s counters. Within 10 minutes, it was 2-1, as a blinding counterattack saw Willian drive the ball past Claudio Bravo, who made a feeble attempt at stopping it. The killer goal came from a similar move, as Eden Hazard made it 3-1 in the 90th minute.
That led to Aguero wildly lunging at Luiz as they went for the same ball — getting a deserved red card. In the melee that followed, Fernandinho was also sent off.
City had been sent packing. Chelsea, meanwhile, keep soaring.
All the quality and sophisticated play in the world makes little difference if your strikers don’t finish and your defenders make massive errors. But the great regret for Guardiola is that he seemed to have it all worked out to start with.
By mimicking Conte’s 3-4-3, the Catalan ensured his side repeatedly outmanoeuvred Chelsea, to the point they always seemed to have one man over. It meant that, even before De Bruyne’s incredible miss, City were punching more and more holes in Conte’s back line. There were so many occasions when Aguero seemed to catch the defence on the back foot, even before De Bruyne had that glaring chance.
Then Fabregas played that superb pass and Costa easily beat Otamendi to score. Otamendi was completely caught out again for the Willian counter — he and John Stones were incapable of dealing with the pace of the Chelsea break.
It should leave Guardiola with a lot to ponder, especially a month before the transfer window.
Fabregas might not be able to move his body in the way Conte demands of a midfielder, but he can move a ball better than anyone else on this team.
That tactical dilemma was the crux of Chelsea’s game, summing up why they went behind and how they got back into it.
Guardiola has said in the past how athletic running midfielders — like Conte in his heyday — helped render his style of passer “extinct” in the late ’90s, and it is telling the Italian hasn’t found too much use for Fabregas.
You can see why. With Nemanja Matic’s power alongside N’Golo Kante and the defter creative players further forward, it means Chelsea can thoroughly overpower the opposition. Matic was injured, however, meaning Conte had no choice but to restore Fabregas, and it immediately told.
Just after De Bruyne and the biggest miss of the game — possibly the season — the Chelsea playmaker picked out a beautiful pass with an accuracy that no one else could have managed.
They, and he, had found a groove.
Fabregas started the move that led to Willian’s winner, and then he played the ball out to Marcos Alonso for the third.
He might not have played the killer ball in either case, but they were the killer moves.
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