Monday 19 August 2019

City deliver ominous title warning

Chelsea 0 Manchester City 1

Manchester City’s Fabian Delph fires a shot at the Chelsea goal during his side’s impressive 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City’s Fabian Delph fires a shot at the Chelsea goal during his side’s impressive 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Reuters

Daniel Taylor

Perhaps the most alarming thought for the other teams with aspirations of winning the Premier League is that Manchester City can shimmer with this kind of confidence, pass the ball so elegantly and comprehensively outplay the reigning champions at a time when Pep Guardiola's team are missing the player who needs only one more goal to establish himself as the club's joint all-time record scorer.

There was a time when Sergio Aguero's absence would have felt like a grievous setback for City. Not any longer judging by the latest victory for Guardiola's side. City were the better team in every department and, by the end, it was starting to feel like a trick of the imagination that Chelsea had finished 15 points better off than their opponents last season.

Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones of Manchester City celebrate victory. Photo: Getty Images
Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones of Manchester City celebrate victory. Photo: Getty Images

Antonio Conte's team might do well just to stay in touch bearing in mind the imbalance of talent on show here, and the latest evidence that the club were far too hasty in allowing Kevin de Bruyne to leave in January 2014. De Bruyne is at a level now where he can justifiably be classed among the small but exclusive band of the world's elite footballers. He was not the only player in City's colours to excel but it was De Bruyne who provided the game's decisive moment, and the winning goal was another outstanding addition for the Belgian's portfolio.

"Kevin was outstanding, he makes absolutely everything. He is good in small spaces, he is humble and clever. He has speed and fight and can attack through the channel. He can play in four of five positions so we are lucky," purred Guardiola.

That made it eight straight wins for City in all competitions and a fairly wretched day for Chelsea was exacerbated by the hamstring injury that left them without Álvaro Morata for the majority of the match.

Morata lasted only 35 minutes before gingerly making his way to the touchline, and the tell-tale sign was his hand reaching down to the back of his leg. These injuries do not usually heal within two to three weeks. After seven goals in his previous eight appearances, Chelsea will have to hope the Spaniard can get over the worst of it during the international break.

Chelsea's Gary Cahill wins a header. Photo: Getty Images
Chelsea's Gary Cahill wins a header. Photo: Getty Images

His withdrawal came at an awkward time for Chelsea, and it was unusual to see them struggling for any real cohesion on their own ground and finding it so difficult to keep up with their opponents.

Guardiola's team started the game with the confidence of a side that had scored 16 times without reply in their last three league fixtures. They were quickly into their rhythm, using the full width of the pitch, with David Silva and De Bruyne prominently involved. Silva, in particular, was at the heart of everything and Fernandinho, a player who does not get a sliver of the credit he deserves, also played a significant part during a first half where they always looked the more dangerous side.

There are not many teams who will back themselves here to out-pass the home team but Chelsea were pinned back at times, and when they did break out they did not keep the ball long enough to build up any sustained pressure.

Chelsea had only 35 per cent of possession in the first half and the pass count was 318-140 in City's favour.

Eden Hazard, starting his first league fixture of the season, looked lively but there were moments of carelessness that must have encouraged City, in particular the near calamity early on when Thibaut Courtois was chased down by Gabriel Jesus inside the six-yard area and fortunate not to give away the opening goal.

Courtois did produce a fine reaction save from Fernandinho's header late in the first half but these were anxious moments for the home crowd and the second half quickly settled into the same pattern, albeit with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling swapping flanks. Chelsea were being pushed back and it wasn't clear whether it was a deliberate tactic to try and catch their opponents on the break or simply because City were forcing them to retreat.

Everybody knows the aesthetic qualities of Guardiola's teams. Yet here, too, was a determination from City, much like Barcelona in Guardiola's peak years, that when they did lose the ball they had to get it back as quickly as possible.

It certainly must have been a disappointment for Conte that his team could not do more to examine Fabien Delph's abilities as a stand-in left-back. Delph has fitted in seamlessly since Benjamin Mendy's knee injury but it was reasonable to think he might be put under more concerted pressure.

Instead, it felt like a reminder that Cesc Fàbregas's better years are now behind him.

There was the sight of N'Golo Kanté misplacing what should have been a routine pass and putting the ball straight out for a throw-in. Willian found it difficult to make any difference after replacing Morata, and when the goal arrived from De Bruyne's left foot it was the culmination of a 10-minute spell in which City had at least four opportunities to take the lead.

De Bruyne's one-two with Jesus was quick and incisive. As soon as he moved on to the ball, it was clear he was going to let fly. Twenty yards out, the shot was a beauty and City had the goal that sent them back to the top of the league. They are going to take some shifting.


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