It’s fair to say that Kevin De Bruyne has a history with Chelsea. And not just because of his frustrating time at the club earlier in his career. The Manchester City midfielder was injured on all levels by them in last season’s Champions League final – manhandled by Antonio Rüdiger, his game ended early with a fractured eye socket; condemned, thus, to a medal of second place.
It was a measure of revenge. It had been a twisty encounter between first against distant second in the Premier League, marked mainly by what didn’t happen. Romelu Lukaku failed to execute a direct pass that could have set up Hakim Ziyech and the Chelsea striker failed to beat Ederson while on goal. For City, Jack Grealish did not finish one-on-one with Kepa Arrizabalaga.
But City were the better side, with Chelsea simply not showing enough ambition, and De Bruyne made the difference with a goal that showcased so many of his best qualities.
There was the intelligence to sniff out the space between the lines, to be wide of N’Golo Kanté’s goal, and then the strength to overlap Chelsea midfielder’s sliding tackle attempt. Finally, while neither Thiago Silva nor Mateo Kovacic could get close to him, there was a glorious right-footed curler from outside the area that was too much for Arrizabalaga, who seemed to show him the far corner too much.
Chelsea needed to win to keep their dim hopes of a title challenge alive but City, who started 10 points clear of the visitors, won’t be caught by them now. Can Liverpool stop City? It seems unlikely after that, a 12th league win on the spin for Pep Guardiola’s machine. He’s set for an incredible fourth title in five years and that’s what a dynasty looks like. For Chelsea, it is now two wins out of eight in the competition. They dropped their standards.
City carry such a fear factor that opposing teams can have damage limitation as a legitimate end. Still, it was disappointing how Chelsea set up, with Thomas Tuchel’s back three looking more like a five and Christian Pulisic and Ziyech often deep into the inside attacking roles. Mason Mount would only be used as a substitute in the 81st minute. Chelsea were happy to cede the initiative to City, asking if they could break them up. “Boring, boring Chelsea,” grumbled the home crowd.
With Raheem Sterling too quick for Marcos Alonso on the City right, the battle lines were drawn early on, the hosts on the front foot, dominating the ball, looking for an incision. Chelsea wanted to counter and they had the opportunity, mainly in the first quarter of the game, to miss the final pass.
Tuchel’s trademark of professional theater was on display because Ziyech was guilty of misplacing two balls, one for Lukaku, who rushed into the inside right channel. But it was the center forward who made the most mistake in the 10th minute.
Lukaku took advantage when John Stones missed a tackle, allowing him to leap forward, and he had the option to shoot or go left or right. He chose the latter, trying to usher Ziyech, only to overshoot the pass terribly. Ziyech was also offside. It felt like Chelsea could live to regret it.
Chelsea defended well in front of their penalty area but they struggled to get out of their own half, especially before the interval – a consequence of City’s height and aggressiveness.
Stones had headed straight for Arrizabalaga from a 14th-minute corner and a first-half snapshot from City’s perspective came shortly after the half-hour mark. Phil Foden, who played the false nine, sliced inside left, exploding past a handful of dark blue shirts to cross, but there was no one to attack the six-yard box.
The big moment of the first half came in the 39th minute. Alonso gave Kovacic trouble and, with De Bruyne all over him, the Chelsea midfielder tried to move him. De Bruyne made the tackle and the ball slipped away nicely for Grealish who, quite abruptly, only had Arrizabalaga to beat. Chelsea were exposed but Grealish couldn’t finish, Arrizabalaga coming out quickly and able to turn his shot past the post.
Chelsea had failed to take a shot on goal before the break but they rushed to do so just after the restart when Kovacic released Lukaku. He knew what he wanted to do: open his body and bend a left-footed shot past Ederson, who was way off his line. The problem was that everyone in the stadium also knew the plan, including Ederson, who dived to save. It would be Chelsea’s only shot on target and, for Lukaku, it would be a day to forget.
Tuchel aside, there was a strange lack of energy in such a big game for long stretches, including from the stands. The Chelsea support held up inflatables of the Champions League trophy; their city counterparts were looking for something to eat.
De Bruyne provided it. He had worked Arrizabalaga with a free-kick and Sterling had trailed a shot away from the far post from a pass from Foden when De Bruyne bent play by force of will. Chelsea substitute Timo Werner would see a shot blocked as Foden shot high late in the game. City had done enough.