The build-up to tonight’s game focused predominantly on the jeopardy that a loss would provide for either side. Chelsea knew that a defeat would see their chances of a top four finish thrown further in to doubt, and anything but a win would be disastrous for Manchester City’s hopes of retaining the Premier League title, as they already trailed Arsenal at the top by eight points.
The game had been dubbed ‘The Battle of the Blues at the Bridge’ by Sky Sports, and as expected with a game of this nature, it played out as a fairly cagey affair. It would ultimately be Riyad Mahrez’s calm finish from close range at the back post, following a spectacular cross from Jack Grealish, that would settle the tie in the favour of the Citizens and keep their title hopes alive.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Koulibaly, Thiago Silva, Cucurella (Hall 68); Kovacic, Zakaria; Ziyech (Gallagher 68), Pulisic (Chukwuemeka 22), Sterling (Aubameyang 5) (Hutchinson 68)
Unused Subs: Bettinelli, Chalobah, Humphreys, Jorginho
Booked: Kovacic 89; Koulibaly 90+4
Manchester City (3-2-4-1): Ederson; Walker (Lewis h/t), Stones, Ake; Cancelo (Akanji h/t), Rodri (Phillips 86), Gundogan (c), Foden (Mahrez 60); De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva (Grealish 60), Haaland
Unused Subs: Ortega, Gomez, Palmer, Alvarez
Scorer: Mahrez 64
Prior to the game, the main talking points for the home side were the absence of Mason Mount and Jorginho from the starting XI. It was reported that the England international had picked up a knock in training, so would therefore not be fit enough for the matchday squad. Graham Potter is now without ten players through injuries of varying degrees and this list would only get longer as the game went on.
Within the first three minutes, Raheem Sterling would pull up with what seemed to be a hamstring problem following a clash with John Stones. He would not be able to continue and Chelsea were forced into a substitution so early that Aubameyang had barely taken his seat on the bench before being called into action.
The early tempo of the game was fairly subdued, with both of the teams trying to work each other out. Guardiola’s men had lined up in a slightly unfamiliar formation, with Cancelo playing out wide on the right hand side and Ake, Stones and Walker operating as a back three in possession with Rodri falling back into a central defensive role – similar to the position he played in Luis Enrque’s Spain side, when the ball was turned over.
Chelsea would see the better of the ball in the first period, with Kovacic playing an influential role to help the Blues beat the intense City press that Pep is known for. This dominance of possession would be exemplified by that fact that Erling Haaland did not register a single touch of the ball in the opening 20 minutes.
The chances were few and far between, but it would be a swift move from the home side that would allow Pulisic to have a clear attempt on goal, which he was unable to put away. However, this shot would result in the second enforced change to Potter’s team as the American would present with an injury and have to be replaced by Carney Chukwuemeka.
As the first half continued, City would start to assert themselves on the match, but this still did not see many clear-cut chances, except from a Gundogan attempt that curled wide and a flash shot from Haaland, under pressure from Koulibaly, that would be blazed over the crossbar.
The teams looked like they were going to head into the break level, but things may have been different had Chukwuemaka’s low-driven attempt found the bottom corner, though the 19-year old could only watch on in despair as the ball ricocheted off the post. City would counter from the chance, with Kevin De Bruyne steaming into the penalty area, but he was unable to really work Kepa in the Chelsea goal.
Manchester City would make two changes at the start of the second half, with both fullbacks being replaced by Akanji and Rico Lewis. The substitution’s would see Pep’s side shift into a more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape, with Rodri able to anchor the midfield and De Bruyne pushed further forward to operate behind Erling Haaland.
Guardiola’s men would dominate the game, with their Norwegian forward seeing more of the ball, but Chelsea would go closest following a corner around the 55th minute. The ball from Ziyech was initially cleared out to the left, but the resulting cross back into the area would cause havoc amongst the City defence. Thiago Silva had time to swivel and shoot a loose ball towards goal, but he too would see his attempt cannon off the upright.
This chance would see Chelsea regain some of their earlier confidence on the pitch and the game started to open up. Ultimately, this new found openness in the play would be to the benefit of Manchester City, as De Bruyne was able to play in substitute Jack Grealish, who produced a wicked cross to his fellow substitute Mahrez who duly scored to give City the lead in the 64th minute. Chelsea fans will feel dismayed by conceding such a straightforward goal, especially considering that Cucurella was beaten so easily at the back post. Questions will also be asked if Kepa could have done more to attack the ball as it came across the penalty area.
The remaining twenty minutes of the match saw Potter make a triple substitution, taking off Ziyech, Cucurella and Aubameyang (who had very little effect on the game, it must be said), for three youngsters in Lewis Hall, Omari Hutchinson and Conor Gallagher. There will be many of the Stamford Bridge crowd that will be wanting to see this trio receive a greater amount of minutes in the coming fixtures, as they were able to add pace and energy to a lethargic side in Chelsea’s search for an equaliser.
A particularly bright moment gave Chelsea fans a glimmer of hope when Hall latched on to a loose throw from Ederson and charged into the box, only for the chance to break down when the ball was laid off to Kovacic who then shot high over the bar.
Chelsea would push for the goal that would salvage a point from the fixture, but alas, their efforts would be in vain, and it would be Manchester City that would run out as victors in a tense affair that ultimately was decided by one brilliant moment of composure from City’s Algerian winger.
Although Graham Potter’s side has lost once again, there will be some positives to take from the way that his team played, in the first half especially. Manchester City and Chelsea will face off again the FA Cup this Sunday.