Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0: And then there were four. Four games and 12 points which Pep Guardiola and Manchester City require to make mathematically certain of the Premier League title after Bernardo Silva’s goal allowed his team to open up an 18-point lead at the top of the table.
Coincidentally, the largest winning points margin by which a team has won the top flight in the Premier League era is the 18-point margin rivals Manchester United enjoyed in 2000.
But it takes a far longer memory than that to recall a team standing so far above their rivals in English football. And last night at the Etihad, just to underline the point, City humbled the defending champions with a mastery that far exceeded the solitary goal winning margin.
A little over 15 months ago, at the start of December of last season, Chelsea came to the Etihad and handed Guardiola a harsh lesson in the realities of Premier League football, a classic display in counter-attack football and ruthless know-how.
It became obvious within minutes of the kick-off in the corresponding fixture yesterday that not only had the roles reversed, but the gulf between champions new and old extends far beyond the 25 points that separate the teams in the table this morning.
The only surprise was that it took City until 32 seconds into the second half to turn an advantage in possession — which had been hovering around the 80% mark — into the game’s opening goal.
Ilkay Gundogan lofted a pass into the Chelsea area where Andreas Christensen succeeded only in “clearing” the ball against a teammate and into the path of David Silva.
The Spanish winger spied namesake Bernardo arriving towards the far post and sent over an inviting cross which the Brazilian netted, via a rather fortunate finish that had more than a hint of mishit about it.
If there was a slice of good fortune about the scoring shot, then City had more than earned that luck, not only on the day but in the months since they last lost at the Etihad, to Conte’s champions-in-waiting in December 2016.
At least, for those in attendance yesterday, the early second-half goal breathed life into a contest that had resembled a training-ground exercise of attack versus defence for far too much of the first half.
Within a few minutes of going behind, a Chelsea team finally forced into some sort of attacking intent, launched their first meaningful assault on the City goal, a move which ended with Victor Moses hurriedly blazing a shot wide of the target.
If that attack offered hope of a more keenly-contested game in the second half, it was short-lived. David Silva sprinted downfield on City’s next attack before forcing Thibaut Courtois into a parry at his near post and the Spaniard had a 20-yard shot deflected behind soon afterwards following a tidy lay-off from Sergio Aguero.
In Chelsea’s defence — and there was enough of it on display — Conte’s ultra-cautious approach had worked to that point, to a very limited degree.
Seven days earlier, he had been far more adventurous at Old Trafford, Chelsea deservedly taking an early lead against Manchester United.
But here there was none of that early ambition as Conte did not so much park the bus as remove its engine and wheels and abandon it in the hope that it would protect his goal.
The success of that policy could be seen in the fact that Courtois did not have a serious first-half save to make, although City should still have taken a lead into the interval.
On 27 minutes, the energetic Leroy Sane showed a magnificent touch to control and shoot, almost in one movement, as he met a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick and only Cesar Azpilicueta’s goal-line clearance denied the hosts the opening goal.
There had also been any number of blocks from the massed ranks of the Chelsea defence and a late first half ‘goal’ ruled out for a clear offside against Aguero, after Nicolas Otamendi turned in the striker’s shot.
But, as he has done so many times this season, Guardiola earned his money at half-time, his team emerging with more urgency and intent and roaring into the lead.
After Moses had squandered their only real sight of goal, Chelsea spent the final 35 minutes of the game occasionally sprinting upfield on the break without ever forcing goalkeeper Ederson into any serious activity.
As a symbol of the changing of the guard — or at least the Premier League trophy — it was a powerful occasion, even if the entertainment left much to be desired. Sane tried to rectify that with a spectacular beating of Moses on the left wing before his cross came agonisingly close to presenting Bernardo Silva with a tap-in. The string of misses was mounting and, had Marcos Alonso made better connection with a 93rd-minute volley which flew wide of the City goal, they may have paid the price for their profligacy.
But anything other than a City victory, and another step closer to Guardiola’s first Premier League title, would have been a gross distortion of what had gone before.
MAN CITY (4-3-3):
Ederson 7; Walker 7, Otamendi 7, Laporte 7, Zinchenko 7 (Danilo 86); De Bruyne 7, Gundogan 7, D Silva 9 (Foden 90); B Silva 8, Aguero 7 (Jesus 84), Sane 8.
Subs not used:
Bravo, Kompany, Stones, Touré.
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 5, Christensen 5, Rudiger 6; Moses 5, Fabregas 6, Drinkwater 6, Alonso 6; Willian 6 (Giroud 78, 6), Pedro 5 (Palmieri 82, 5), Hazard 5 (Morata 89).
Subs not used:
Caballero, Zappacosta, Cahill, Chalobah.
M Oliver 6
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