Sunday 17 December 2017

De Bruyne leaves Chelsea to count cost of striker shortage

Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois looks on as Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game at Stamford Bridge last night. Photo: Getty Images
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois looks on as Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game at Stamford Bridge last night. Photo: Getty Images

Matt Law

The story has been so well told that it barely gets a mention any longer, but Kevin De Bruyne did once play for Chelsea and now, among the few players in the world who can determine the outcomes of games with a moment of brilliance, he does so for one of their biggest rivals.

De Bruyne was the match-winner for Manchester City in this top-of-the-table Premier League showdown, although it was only really the visitors who showed up. They deserved their victory, dominating the game up until the moment that De Bruyne took a return pass from Gabriel Jesus and slammed a left-foot shot past Thibaut Courtois.

Pep Guardiola's team sit top of the league, a goal better off than Manchester United, who also have 19 points, and have now seen off Chelsea in one of the most demanding fixtures of the season, even without Sergio Aguero.

Antonio Conte was accused of sending messages to the Chelsea board during the early weeks of the season when he loaded his bench with youngsters and fringe players as the clock ticked down towards the end of the transfer window.

In reality his hand had largely been forced by fitness issues and suspensions back in August, but there was no room for misinterpreting Conte's message when he opted to replace Alvaro Morata with Willian.

The striker pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 35th minute and Conte's change meant Chelsea effectively had seven midfielders on the pitch while the midweek Champions League hero Michy Batshuayi sat on the bench with his hood up. Batshuayi eventually got on with just under 20 minutes remaining, but he was once again the last throw of the dice for Chelsea.

Conte doesn't mind looking towards Batshuayi for a vital last-gasp winner, as he provided against West Brom to clinch last season's Premier League title, and Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.

But he does not appear to trust the Belgian for any prolonged amount of time against the very best teams and Morata's injury highlighted the fact that Conte feels he is short of striker options after missing out on Fernando Llorente.

Just as Mauricio Pochettino would overlook Vincent Janssen to ask Heung-Min Son to deputise for Harry Kane last season, Conte put a round peg in a square hole in Chelsea's biggest game of the season so far.

Pochettino now has Llorente at his disposal if Kane suffers an injury or needs a rest, but Conte simply cannot afford to lose Morata for any length of time between now and January, when he can try again to get a deputy he trusts.

Morata scored seven goals in his first seven games after arriving at Chelsea for a club record £57m from Real Madrid, but Conte took a risk starting him against City.

The Spaniard had limped his way out of Atletico's Wanda Metropolitano stadium and was caught by television cameras feeling his hamstring before kick-off at Stamford Bridge. That in itself underlines how heavily Conte and Chelsea will rely on Morata during the first half of the season.

How Conte must have envied Guardiola, who could call on Jesus after Sergio Aguero had been ruled out after suffering broken ribs in a car crash. With no focal point in attack, Chelsea were forced into smash-and-grab mode and were unable to dominate the game as they had done so impressively in the Champions League.

Batshuayi had already stripped off to go on when De Bruyne scored in the 67th minute, and when he eventually trotted on the pitch it was with Pedro.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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