Eight wins in their last eight matches, and Chelsea’s status as serious title challengers is official. The Blues’ latest victims: A Manchester City side that sat just one point from the league leaders going into the match and who had yet to taste defeat at home under manager Pep Guardiola.
That all changed on Saturday afternoon, as Chelsea marched into the Etihad Stadium and ran out with a 3-1 victory in what was their biggest challenge to date.
The match itself was quite the spectacle in terms of contrast. Both teams lined up in 3-4-3 formations, but the battle that played out was classic attack versus counter attack – Guardiola’s men looking to keep possession and create chances and Conte’s men looking to create chances on the break.
Although Chelsea’s three goals came from devastating counter attacks, they did ride their luck at times, and if it weren’t for some woeful finishing by the hosts, the Blues could have conceded more than just the single goal.
It’s not as if Chelsea didn’t have their chances. The Blues probably should have been 1-0 up on 25 minutes when Cesc Fabregas, starting in place of the injured Nemanja Matic, found Eden Hazard darting in behind Jesus Navaswith a long diagonal ball. Hazard controlled the pass and went around the keeper, but rather than shoot, he opted to try and pull the ball back and City were able to clear.
That could have proved crucial just minutes later when Sergio Aguero attempted to latch on to a poor back pass from Cesar Azpilicueta and looked to race through on goal. David Luiz, however, gave referee Anthony Taylor a big decision to make when he blocked off Aguero’s run, sending the Argentinian striker to the ground. Despite protests from City’s players, Taylor judged that no foul had occurred and waved play on.
Taylor had another big decision to make on the stroke of half-time. A Jesus Navas cross was guided into the path of Ilkay Gundogan by Sergio Aguero. As Gundogan prepared to shoot, he was challenged from behind by N’Golo Kante and sent sprawling inside the penalty area. Taylor had a look and decided to not award the penalty, and on replay, it did look as if Kante may have gotten a slight touch on the ball.
City did get their reward for taking control of the match in the latter stages of the first half. City’s goal came via an own goal from Gary Cahill. Cahill attempted to clear a Jesus Navas cross from the right wing with his right foot, but managed to catch it with his shin and send it looping past Thibault Courtois at the far post.
City should have been 2-0 up just after the second half restart. City broke forward in numbers led by Leroy Sane. Sane found Kevin De Bruyne free on the right, but Courtois was able to save De Bruyne’s one-on-one chance.
Just before the hour mark, De Bruyne had City’s best chance of the match. Another City counter attack saw Jesus Navas play a perfect cross for De Bruyne, but the Belgian managed to hit the crossbar with his shot from three yards out.
Those misses would prove costly, as Chelsea demonstrated much better composure in front of goal.
Two minutes later, Fabregas and Diego Costa showed the kind of play that was a feature of Chelsea’s Premier League title two seasons ago. A long ball from Fabregas was controlled brilliantly by Costa, and Costa showed all the ability of a top centre forward by chesting it down, holding off Nicolas Otamendi, and firing past Claudio Bravo to bring the Blues level.
As City pushed forward looking to take the lead again, Chelsea began to find space on the counter attack. Gundogan skipped past a couple challenges and looked to set up City’s second, but Chelsea cleared their lines.
The subsequent clearance came to Hazard who found Costa on the half-way line. Costa turned Otamendi with brilliant piece of skill and found Willian in space galloping down the right. The Brazilian raced in on City’s goal, fizzing a wonderful shot inside Bravo’s far post to give the Blues the lead.
The icing on the cake came on 90 minutes when another set of clearances saw Marcos Alonso loft the ball over the top to send Hazard racing clear on goal. Hazard set himself and fired past Bravo to seal the three points.
After that goal, City began to lose their collective heads. Aguero, who had been frustrated all match with the referee and wasted chances, lunged at David Luiz with two feet off the ground in a challenge that wouldn’t have been out of place in a pro wrestling ring, and was shown an immediate red card. A melee ensued and Fernandinho was also shown red for putting his hands around Fabregas’ throat and pushing him over the advertising hoardings.
None of that really had an impact on the result of the match, and Chelsea supporters will be thrilled that their team has come away with an important result in the biggest challenge since Conte switched to a back three.