Only a few days ago, when Chelsea lost at home to Crystal Palace and Tottenham reduced the gap to seven points, some excited voices were anxious to claim the title race was back on and Antonio Conte’s men were capable of wobbling.
Now, despite Tottenham’s dramatic comeback at Swansea, those claims look like nothing more than television pundits eager to add to audience numbers by hyping up the season finale, because two goals from Hazard, his 15th and 16th of the season, earned a 2-1 victory over City at Stamford Bridge and settled west London’s nerves in the process.
If there is going to be a late dramatic twist in the title race – and it’s a big ‘if’ – then Tottenham are going to have to earn it because on this evidence they certainly cannot rely on Chelsea simply collapsing. If there is one chink of light for Spurs, perhaps, it would be that Chelsea were far from their best in a touch-and-go match here in which they found Pep Guardiola’s side difficult to handle, and in which both sides made individual errors. Nevertheless is hard to see anything other than dark blue ribbons on the trophy in May – especially with only eight games to go and the gap of seven points still standing.
Chelsea’s next two Premier League fixtures are both away from home, at Bournemouth on Saturday and then at Old Trafford on Sunday April 16, but their remaining home games against Southampton, Middlesbrough and Sunderland suggest the chances of Conte’s men being caught are pretty slim.
By contrast City, who face Hull at the Etihad on Saturday and have a derby against United later this month, can claim they had the better of this match at Stamford Bridge; but sitting fourth in the table, only four points clear of Arsenal and without a Premier League win since March 5, they are far from assured of Champions League football in 2017-18 let alone able to dream of challenging for the title.
Put all the statistics aside, however, and this was a fascinating tactical battle between two managers who began the night with an embrace but lived every moment on the touchline, often berating fourth official Bobby Madley as the action at times threatened to turn nasty, just as it did at the Eithad earlier in the season.
For all his commitment to an attacking formation Guardiola made compromises against the champions-elect, choosing this moment to bring back influential defender Vincent Kompany and selecting the energetic and physical Fabian Delph in midfield in a bid to counter Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation.
“They are so physical – so the way we have to defend, the way we have to play today, we need one guy like him,” the Spaniard said, adding he chose Kompany for his experience even though he hasn’t played since October and was clearly puffing by the end. Chelsea, too, made noticeable adjustments to their style in a bid cancel out City’s intent. Their back three was a five for long periods of the game and David Luiz was regularly encouraged by Conte from the touchline to play the ball quick and long, taking advantage of the space left by City’s marauding midfielders.
All the tactics in the world, however, cannot do anything to mitigate against the kind of individual errors which shaped the first-half. Manchester City goalkeeper Willy Caballero made the first mistake, allowing a snap-shot from Hazard – followin a Cesar Azpilicueta cut-back – to slip straight through his hands in the 10th minute. The shot took a slight deflection off Kompany but nevetheless it was an effort any goalkeeper would expect to save, let alone someone playing at this level.
Chelsea’s lead didn’t last long, however, because their own goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, returned the favour in the 26th minute when he inexplicably cleared a Kurt Zouma back-pass straight to David Silva. The Belgian briefly made amends by saving Silva’s fierce effot but saw the ball bounce invitingly for Aguero to tap home.
It was a sweet moment for Aguero, sent off at the Etihad when Chelsea won there 3-1 in December, and who had been accused of cheating by the Stamford Bridge crowd seconds earlier when felled by Marcos Alonso; but once again he didn’t have long to enjoy it.
Fernandinho joined the stupid mistakes club 10 minutes before the break when he rashly and unnecessarily brought down Pedro to give away a penalty which Hazard put away at the second attempt – firing home after Caballero saved his initial poorly-struck effort.
Fernandinho, of course, was also sent off against Chelsea in that bad tempered match at the Etihad four months ago and it set the tone for a tetchy second-half in which both teams largely cancelled each other out.
Hazard, after 75 minutes, wasted an excellent chance to put the result beyond doubt as he lifted a shot over the bar when under no pressure; but City defended far better than at many times this season and were in it right until the end. Unfortunately for Guardiola, however, the same cannot be said for their title challenge.
Courtois 6, Zouma 6 (Matic 46; 6), David Luiz 7, Cahill 7, Azpilicueta 6, Kante 6, Fabregas 7 (Willian 81 6), Alonso 6, Pedro 6, Diego Costa 6, Hazard 8 (Loftus-Cheek 90).
Caballero 5, Clichy 7, Stones 7, Kompany 6, Fernandinho 6, Delph 6, Sane 6 (Nolito 85), Silva 7, De Bruyne 7 (Sterling 79; 6), Navas 5, Aguero 6.