Chelsea edge closer to the Premier League title with 2-1 win vs. Man City
LONDON — Three thoughts from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea hung on for a 2-1 win over Manchester City…
1. Chelsea move a step closer to the title
Chelsea killed off hopes of a late-season title race with an efficient 2-1 victory over Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte’s side kept their seven-point advantage at the top of the Premier League thanks to two first-half goals from Eden Hazard. Sergio Aguero equalized for City but despite the visitors’ dominance in possession, Chelsea rarely looked seriously stretched.
The home side were happy to let City have the majority of the ball but Conte’s side are always looking to break at pace. Hazard was always eager to get involved and twice had Jesus Navas backpedalling down the left wing in the early exchanges.
The opening goal developed on the other side of the pitch, though. In the 10th minute, Cesc Azpilicueta ranged up field and exchanged passes with Pedro. Hazard had drifted across the face of the area unnoticed by all except Azpilicueta. The full-back rolled the ball to the winger and Hazard released a speculative shot that deflected off Vincent Kompany. The ball looked to have neither the pace nor the direction to beat Willy Caballero but inexplicably, the City goalkeeper failed to get behind the shot.
The equalizer, 16 minutes later, came from another goalkeeping error. Thibaut Courtois, under the most minimal pressure from Aguero, sent his clearance straight to David Sliva 25 yards from goal. The Chelsea goalkeeper did his best to make amends by saving the Silva’s angled shot but the ball rebounded to Aguero near the penalty spot and the striker took the opportunity with relish.
Chelsea were back in the lead eight minutes later. Pedro had been a constant irritant to City. He caused panic with his running from deep and Fernandinho in particular struggled with his rival’s pace. The City midfielder finally got near Pedro in the 18-yard box but got too close. Fernandinho clipped the Spain international as he twisted toward goal and referee Michael Dean pointed to the spot.
Hazard stepped up to take the penalty but produced another weak effort. Again, Caballero should have done better. The City goalkeeper made the save but pushed the ball back towards Hazard, who slotted home gratefully.
Kevin De Bruyne hit the bar in the early moments of the second half as City put the Chelsea goal under siege. Again, the visiting side dominated possession but created few clear-cut chances. John Stones had a free header from a corner but sent the ball straight at Courtois. The Chelsea goalkeeper made no mistake this time, getting his body squarely behind the ball.
No team in the Premier League is more disciplined than Conte’s. As City pressed for an equalizer, the entire Chelsea XI were frequently within 20 yards of their own goal. They still broke with venom and Hazard fired over inside the area after one counterattack with 16 minutes left, but the home side were less inclined to leave space behind them as the minutes ticked down.
Stones missed a great chance in time added on for a corner but overall, Chelsea were troubled too rarely by City. Conte’s team deserved the win and took another step towards the title.
2. Chelsea get revenge on Aguero
Aguero and Luiz have history. The City striker’s lunge at the Brazil defender in the closing moments of Chelsea’s 3-1 win at the Etihad in December sparked a mass brawl. Aguero was sent off and Luiz still carries an injury from the tackle. He also harbours some resentment. He’s not the only one in this Chelsea side, either.
The City striker was a target for rough treatment. Gary Cahill and Marcos Alonso left their marks on him without the referee blowing for a foul. Luiz got his chance for some payback as half-time loomed. The ball was running away from goal and towards the byline. Aguero looked like the favourite to reach it first but the Chelsea centre-back accelerated and barged his opponent out of the way with a thumping shoulder charge. Once again, Dean did not blow his whistle.
Aguero battled away and his strength was evident throughout the game. He backed into Luiz and held the defender’s robust challenges at bay. Costa tracked back and took his chance to disrupt the striker in midfield. It was not blatant brutality but it was clear that memories of the Etihad were still in Chelsea’s thoughts.
In the second half, Aguero probed for room between Cahill and Alonso but frustration began to show. He tripped the England centre-back on the halfway line, showing signs of exasperation. Leroy Sane and Silva carved out a chance for Aguero in the second half but Cahill slid in to kill the danger. Whichever defender was closest to the City striker made sure that Aguero was not given time or room. It was unfortunate for City that their best chances fell to Stones and not Aguero.
3. Guardiola’s tactics crack again
Pep Guardiola tried to balance caution with his attacking instincts, deploying Fabian Delph and Fernandinho in the centre of the pitch in the hope of cutting out Chelsea’s counterattacks before they reached the City defence.
It was a fine theory, but in reality the lightning-quick pace of Hazard and Pedro left them stranded up field too often. Sane and De Bruyne were able to stretch Fabregas and Kante to cause the home side’s centre-backs some nervous moments. Silva too was at his impish best, dropping deeper, dragging Luiz and Cahill towards the midfield and allowing City’s runners to drive past the defenders.
The flaw in the plan came when Guardiola’s side would squander possession deep in the Chelsea half. Fabregas and Luiz used their passing ability to bypass the midfield with long balls. Once Pedro and Hazard got on the ball in City’s half, the visiting side’s defence were playing catch-up.
After half-time Kurt Zouma, starting a Premier League game for the first time this season, was replaced by Nemanja Matic. Pedro moved to right wing-back and it took a little bit of thrust out of Chelsea’s breaks down the middle but added to Gael Clichy’s problems. Conte clearly believed the Frenchman was one of City’s weaker links and so it proved when Clichy barged down Pedro and was given a yellow card. The Chelsea winger took every opportunity to run at Clichy and as the match went on, City’s left side of defence looked increasingly stretched.
In his first start since November, Kompany did well against Diego Costa. The City captain’s relationship with Guardiola has sometimes been fractious, especially in the past six weeks when the Belgian has been back to full training but unable to break into the team. The Catalan has preferred Stones and Nicolas Otamendi for their ball-carrying ability but against Costa, Kompany’s physical presence and experience paid off. Even though the City captain showed signs of rustiness, he managed the full 90 minutes without many alarms.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.