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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 February 2021

Chelsea left chasing shadows after Pep Guardiola masterstroke

Manchester City manager packed his team with like-minded midfielders with Gundogan, Foden and De Bruyne all on target

New year, old Manchester City? Perhaps. Pep Guardiola’s team completed 2020 without taking three points away at any of the big six. They began 2021 with their best performance and result of the season so far, an authoritative display of inventiveness and intensity that felt a throwback to the recent past. It catapulted them into title contention.

Chelsea were clinically cut apart, outwitted and outclassed as they suffered a fourth defeat in six games. After looking down at City in the table all season, they now find themselves beneath their conquerors as Frank Lampard’s problems mounted. His side were passive and poor, the summer’s big spenders looking a shadow of the side they were supposed to be.

City’s previous game had been called off because of coronavirus but, minus six ill players and only able to name eight substitutes, they turned adversity into an advantage. Their win had the stamp of Guardiola, with inventive, attacking football, played by a host of midfielders who bemused Chelsea with their movement. The false nine was a trademark tactic of Guardiola’s in his Barcelona days, when Lionel Messi occupied the role, and if the deployment of Kevin de Bruyne in a more advanced position was partly a consequence of the absences of Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres, it was a masterstroke.

Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden took the chance to get forward and score, each from a position where a striker might otherwise have been found, and Chelsea struggled to track the phalanx of midfield raiders. Remarkably, De Bruyne had made it to January without a Premier League goal in open play but his unexpectedly long wait ended as he captained City to success at the club who have had ample reason to regret only giving him two league starts and selling him.

But he was far from alone in excelling. Gundogan, who scored his third goal in four games, felt the classiest passer in the midfield. Foden, who has been starved of starts in the Premier League, was terrific as he made Cesar Azpilicueta’s 400th Chelsea game a miserable affair.

City’s impressive defence kept Chelsea quiet until the substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi’s injury-time consolation goal, after Guardiola had substituted all his goalscorers. While Lampard began with both Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic for the first time, his expensive forward line were muted. Timo Werner might have had a penalty for a challenge by Rodri, but his barren run continued.

City had to give Zack Steffen a Premier League debut, with Ederson also testing positive for Covid-19, but while the American made a false start, picking up a pass from Rodri to concede an indirect free kick in his own box, he was only denied a clean sheet by Hudson-Odoi.

Guardiola is no stranger to springing a surprise in his tactics, especially in defining away games, but the merit of packing his side with midfielders was apparent when they scored twice in three minutes. Likeminded men could swap positions and Gundogan popped up on the edge of the box to let Foden’s pass go through his legs, spin and shoot past Edouard Mendy. Then De Bruyne materialised on the left to centre and Foden guided a shot in at the near post.

Chelsea looked shambolic for the third. They were caught on the counter-attack when De Bruyne headed N’Golo Kante’s attempted pass away, leaving the Frenchman in desperate pursuit of Raheem Sterling. While Chelsea held the winger up, Sterling took his time and struck a shot against the post. De Bruyne latched on to the rebound. His drought ought to have ended 19 minutes earlier, when he steered a shot wide after Joao Cancelo provided a defence-splitting pass. Gundogan was inches from a fourth with a clever flick after a move that involved all of Chelsea’s tormentors, with De Bruyne, Sterling and Foden combining to set him up.

Thereafter, Mendy made a fine save to tip Rodri’s header over and De Bruyne came close. At the other end, Mateo Kovacic shot wide, but Chelsea rarely threatened apart from that. For much of the time, they just could not get the ball as City looked as dominant as they did when they accumulated 198 points in two seasons.

Updated: January 3, 2021 10:36 PM

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