Manchester City 1 Chelsea 3: Rampant, magnificent Chelsea may still face some disciplinary reprisals following the mass brawl that marred the closing seconds of their eighth consecutive victory, but this was still the sort of afternoon that will, surely, prove pivotal in the destiny of the Premier League title race.
City were handed two red cards and Chelsea a pair of yellows after Sergio Aguero launched two feet at the knees of David Luiz and the two teams, plus benches, squared up on the touchline.
Aguero, already sent off this season for a nasty elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid, will serve a four-match ban and team-mate Fernandinho three for grabbing Cesc Fabregas around the throat and throwing him over an advertising hoarding into the stand.
The FA will study referee Anthony Taylor’s report and may well decide Fernandinho’s actions are “non-standard,” which could lead to a longer suspension, but Chelsea’s actions will also come under scrutiny.
Substitute Nathanial Chalobah was booked for sparking the “afters,” when he sprinted over to push Aguero, while television footage clearly showed Fabregas slapping Fernandinho across the face before the Brazilian reacted with fury.
Fabregas was cautioned but if Taylor’s report reveals he was booked for something other than the slap, the FA will have the power to charge him retrospectively for violent conduct.
It was such a sad and unnecessary ending to a fantastic game of football, albeit one in which the poor refereeing of Taylor, and the over-reactions of City manager Pep Guardiola on the sidelines, contributed to the feeling of menace and anger that grew steadily through the day and led to the late flashpoint.
Nor did Guardiola seek to ease matters afterwards when he, first, apologised and then claimed Aguero and Fernandinho had done nothing wrong - a delusional analysis of events.
Aguero, who came into the game with 16 goals from his last 18 games, will be particularly missed for his second red for violent play this season, although Guardiola was not in the mood to chastise his star for the seven games of suspension he will have served by the end of the year.
“He was sent off,” snapped Guardiola. “We are going to accept the ban and keep going.”
These are trying times for Guardiola who has not won a home league game since September 17 and has seen Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough pick up draws at the Etihad prior to this Chelsea win.
A sign of his struggles can be seen in the constant chopping and changing he has carried out on his team, having made as astonishing total of 46 changes to his starting line-up in the Premier League season to date.
In stark contrast, Antonio Conte has made just eight all season, the latest being forced on him at the Etihad where Fabregas started in place of the injured Nemanja Matic, and that stability has been a major help during the team’s winning streak according to captain Gary Cahill.
“I think that helps,” he said.
“Everyone is playing well, working to the system. It helps all of us.
“We’ve got a few players out, hopefully we’ll have them back soon. We’ve worked well together, we know how to play that system and if we have to change a little bit we can do that.
“Look at Willian, for him to come through what he’s been through lately and produce that, score his goal. I’m delighted for him.”
The changes made by Guardiola have been keenly felt in defence where his team has struggled to find form and consistency, individually and collectively.
That was never more obvious than in Chelsea’s opening two goals as Nicolas Otamendi, in particular, was made to look foolish as Diego Costa scored the opener then laid on a second for Willian.
They cancelled out a first-half own goal from Gary Cahill, although had City not missed a host of chances - Kevin De Bruyne hitting the bar from point-blank range when the score was still 1-0 - Chelsea would have been buried long before Eden Hazard completed the scoring with his team’s late third.
Even Guardiola was forced to admit that the constant, chronic inconsistency in his team selection may be an issue.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a problem. We’re going game by game.
“Today I understood the best way to attack them as much as possible like we did. We created chances, put in crosses in front of the goalkeeper and we did it.
“I don’t think we lost today because of the defensive problems. When we play better and better and better we will concede few chances and will score more goals. That’s what we can do in the next period.”
For Chelsea, every passing week showcases Conte’s talents in transforming a squad which is practically identical to the one that struggled under Jose Mourinho 12 months ago.
“I hope we’re back,” said Cahill.
“We are not even at Christmas yet, so I don’t want to talk too much, but at the same time I’m sure teams don’t want to play against us at the minute. So hopefully we are going in the right direction.
“Last year was a blip since I’ve been part of the club and every year apart from that we have won something or been competing, so I suppose we are back to a bit of normality and competing at the top of the table again.”
MAN CITY (3-2-4-1):
Bravo 5; Otamendi 4, Stones 6 (Iheanacho 78), Kolarov 5; Fernandinho 6, Gundogan 6 (Toure 76); Navas 7, De Bruyne 8, Silva 7, Sane 6 (Clichy 69, 5); Aguero 6.
Subs not used:
Caballero, Sagna, Zabaleta, Fernando.
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Luiz 8, Cahill 5; Moses 6, Kante 7, Fabregas 7, Alonso 7; Pedro 6 (Willian 49, 8), Costa 9 (Chalobah 85), Hazard 7 (Batshuayi 90).
Subs not used:
Begovic, Ivanovic, Oscar, Aina.
A Taylor 4
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