Sergio Aguero hat-trick eases Manchester City past Chelsea
Sergio Aguero scored a hat-trick and Kevin De Bruyne starred on his return to Stamford Bridge as Manchester City defeated 10-man Chelsea 3-0 to climb to third in the Barclays Premier League.
This was a match between last season's top two - but both have fallen from grace since last August, and both managers here knew they would be looking for work in the summer.
But the visitors appeared buoyant, with a first Champions League semi-final in the bag, and two breakaway goals and a late penalty from Aguero - Thibaut Courtois sent off after conceding the spot-kick with a foul on Fernandinho - kept City on course to achieve their revised goal of a top-four finish.
City's title challenge petered out spectacularly during the two-month injury-enforced absence of big-money signing De Bruyne, who made just three league appearances during an unhappy two-year stint with the Blues but returned to west London as a key man for Manuel Pellegrini's side.
The Belgium midfielder was involved from the start, getting in behind the Chelsea defence before crossing for Aguero, whose shot was blocked behind for a corner.
Guus Hiddink's Chelsea almost took the lead five minutes in as a long ball was left by the City defence, allowing Diego Costa to take control and tee up Pedro, but Nicolas Otamendi recovered to hook off the line.
The busy De Bruyne then tested Courtois with a low drive and, with both defences looking nervous, Costa had the ball in the net after Pedro latched onto the ball as Jesus Navas dallied, but the Spain striker was flagged offside.
After a subdued spell, Ruben Loftus-Cheek turned Otamendi before firing a shot across Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper making a fingertip save but earning a goal-kick as referee Mike Dean missed the contact.
De Bruyne passed up a superb chance at the midway point of the first half, breaking on to Yaya Toure's pass only to see his shot turned behind by Courtois.
The Belgium goalkeeper was on hand again moments later to keep out Samir Nasri's effort after a slide-rule ball from Aguero had put him through.
But he was powerless to stop Aguero opening the scoring just after the half-hour mark as he and De Bruyne broke forward from a Chelsea corner, with the former Blues man playing the perfect pass for Aguero to finish for his 19th league goal of the campaign.
Only a brilliant last-ditch challenge from Gary Cahill prevented Aguero pulling the trigger again following another smart exchange with the live-wire De Bruyne.
The second half saw City again exert their control on the game early on, once more breaking at pace and inevitably it was De Bruyne leading the charge.
He nipped the ball passed Cesc Fabregas before freeing Nasri, whose pinpoint pass allowed Aguero to convert his second of the afternoon.
Chelsea's poor evening continued as Courtois was sent off for bringing down a marauding Fernandinho inside the box, with Asmir Begovic coming on just in time to be sent the wrong way from the penalty spot by Aguero.
The Argentinian was soon replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho as Pellegrini wrapped him in cotton wool with bigger games coming up - but by that point City had eased to three points to move third in the table and leave Chelsea with one win from their last seven outings.
TWEET OF THE MATCH:
Manchester City official Twitter @MCFC: "That's @aguerosergiokun seventh hatrick for City and 26 goals this season! #mcfc #cfcvcity #CMONCITY."
Thibaut Courtois: 5/10
Cesar Azplicueta: 6
Branislav Ivanovic: 6
Gary Cahill: 6
Baba Rahman: 5
Jon Obi Mikel: 5
Cesc Fabregas: 5
Ruben Loftus-Cheek: 6
Diego Costa: 5
Kenedy (for Pedro, 70): 6
Bertrand Traore (for Willian, 70): 6
Asmir Begovic (for Mikel, 79): 6
Joe Hart: 6
Pablo Zabaleta: 6
Eliaquim Mangala: 6
Nicholas Otamendi: 5
Aleksandar Kolorov: 6
Yaya Toure: 7
Jesus Navas: 6
Sami Nasri: 7
Kevin De Bruyne: 8
Sergio Aguero: 9
Bacary Sagna (for Zabaleta, 66): 6
Fabian Delph (for Nasri, 75): 6
Kelechi Iheanacho (for Aguero, 84): 6
Sergio Aguero: A stunning performance from Kevin De Bruyne on his return to Stamford Bridge would usually make him the star player - but Aguero showed that he remains the Premier League's top striker when he is fit. The first two goals of his hat-trick were taken in style and he tucked home his third from the penalty spot. He could be key to seeing off Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final and Manuel Pellegrini soon wrapped up his prized asset in cotton wool.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Sergio Aguero: His first goal punctuated an opening half an hour of largely mediocre football between two sides who were competing for the title 12 months ago. It was a devastating counter-attack as Aguero and De Bruyne broke clear, with the latter feeding Aguero perfectly to allow him to arrow a strike past Thibaut Courtois.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
A strange afternoon for two managers who know they are leaving their respective posts in a matter of weeks. City are rejuvenated with the return of De Bruyne and their first-ever Champions League semi-final on the horizon and Pellegrini sent out a side primed to attack. Guus Hiddink has looked more like an interim boss of the Blues this time around but again deployed Ruben Loftus-Cheek in an attacking role and had few options off the bench with Alexandre Pato and Radamel Falcao his less-than prolific reserve strikers.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
When the fixture computer spat out this clash last summer many would have expected it to be billed as a potential title-decider as opposed to a game with only City's top-four finish to play for. Chelsea are rightly in mid-table and could not leapfrog Stoke with a largely insipid display. City showed flair and some attacking bravado but it is too little, too late for their title hopes and for their out-going manager.
WHO'S UP NEXT?
Bournemouth v Chelsea, Barclays Premier League (Saturday, April 23)
Newcastle v Manchester City, Barclays Premier League (Tuesday, April 19)
Pellegrini was delighted with his side's victory and told Sky Sports 1: "I'm very satisfied because I think our team played very well in attacking and defending when we have all our players fit and playing all of them together - I think it's another team.
"We knew before the game that Chelsea would always be a difficult team, but we also wanted the revenge for the FA Cup that we had to play here with a young team and they beat us 5-1.
"So I think that tonight was a complete game and three important points for the Premier League."
City midfielder Yaya Toure added: "I think today was a brilliant game. We played very well
"The first half was a brilliant game, we started very well. We tried to control the game well, we had some good counter-attacks.
"It was a good game for all the team, I think we deserved the win.
"It was one of the best games (this season)."
While Chelsea interim boss Hiddink was trying to look at the positives as his side aim to end the season with some pride.
He said: "When you play a big team it's very good experience (for the younger players).
"(We have) Nothing at stake in terms of the silverware, of course. But if you play in what has been a very difficult season for Chelsea, then everyone has to show his character and his pride in playing for a club in a difficult time.
"I'm very keen and very motivated to get the last games also done for a good result and not have it slide away.
"With a lot of ambition here, I hope we can end the season with our chest a little bit up front."