How Chelsea picked apart Manchester City, setting a template to open up the title race - (2021)
A further depressing aspect of the Raheem Sterling abuse story is the attention it stole from his display. Sterling was Manchester City’s best player by some margin, indefatigable in his harassment of the Chelsea defence. When Pep Guardiola spoke of the pride he felt in his team’s performance despite it ending in a first defeat of the season, Sterling would have been foremost in his thoughts.
Read more: Raheem Sterling's reaction to abuse shows us football's dark days are not yet behind us
The absence of distress in the reaction of Guardiola is easily understood and warns us against investing too much in the idea of a competitive title race. Chelsea, twice champions in the past four years, and a club that has emerged as a global player in the last decade, had no alternative but to adapt to an agenda set entirely by City.
That they adopted a defensive configuration at home, playing their most influential player, Eden Hazard, in an unfamiliar lone striker role, was the ultimate compliment to their opponents. If the Guardiola commitment to quick passing and clever angles has a flaw it is revealed when the opponent locks into their attacking rhythms. In rare moments such as these the neutral spectator is gripped by a recidivist urge to scream “Can you not knock it?”
With wave after wave of precision attacking rebounding off a blue wall the demand was for chaos, to present Chelsea with a problem they were not expecting, a bit of Jose ball lobbed long to the big man. David Luiz has not not had a better game at the heart of the Chelsea defence. None has muzzled Leroy Sane as effectively as David Azpilicueta. Antonio Rudiger was an uncompromising companion to Luiz and on the left Marcos Alonso subordinated his attacking instincts to defensive responsibilities.
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The Chelsea rearguard, augmented by Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, was effectively City’s dance partner, dovetailing skyblue attacking thrusts with foot-perfect defensive moves in a kind of footballing tango. Though they prevailed on this occasion you would not bet a dime on Chelsea repeating the outcome, hence Guardiola’s affability when asked about the title race and the threat presented by unbeaten Liverpool a point to the good at the top.
City, he said, would continue their attachment to first principles and back themselves no matter who they face. They started at Stamford Bridge without Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, and finished it without David Silva, yet still managed 69 per cent possession and fashioned 13 corners to Chelsea’s one. You can’t with them all, Guardiola said, reminding us to check the table in May rather than December
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