Conte bests Guardiola, and Chelsea keep their heads as Manchester City lose theirs

Richard Jolly writes that as things devolved for Manchester City on Saturday, it only underscored the steel Antonio Conte has appeared to instill in his Chelsea side.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte celebrates the third goal as Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola also reacts on Saturday. Phil Noble / Reuters / December 3, 2016
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Manchester City 1-3 Chelsea

Man City: Cahill 45’ (og); Chelsea: Costa 60’, Willian 70’, Hazard 90’

Man of the Match: Diego Costa (Chelsea)

Pep Guardiola strode on to the pitch at the final whistle with the urgency of a man whose plans had unravelled, but whose players were in the process of making a damaging day potentially disastrous.

The Manchester City manager tried to act as peacemaker, but hostilities of the battle of the Etihad had already claimed casualties.

Nicolas Otamendi’s first-half booking had ruled him out of Saturday’s game at Leicester long before Sergio Aguero’s senseless injury-time assault on David Luiz brought a sending-off that carries a four-match ban. Fernandinho followed it up by grabbing Cesc Fabregas by the throat, resulting in a red card that rules him out for three matches.

It was an abdication of responsibility from two of Guardiola’s main men.

Tempers were lost along with a game. “It was a pity,” said Guardiola, in an understatement. “I apologise.”

Yet a diplomatic reaction was married with a reluctance to criticise his players. Aguero’s lunge, he claimed, “wasn’t intentional. Both players were strong there; that’s all.” Fernandinho, he argued, was merely trying to defend his teammates.

Stronger words should be delivered in private but such were the scenes in added time that Chelsea’s seismic win threatened to be demoted to a subplot. They triumphed in adversity, stamping their authority on the title race in a match that has been a microcosm of these clubs’ seasons. City were the early frontrunners, eight points ahead of Chelsea when Antonio Conte’s men lost 3-0 at Arsenal on 24 September. Now the Londoners boast a four-point advantage after an eighth straight win. Their aggregate score in that time is 22-2. Christian Eriksen remains the only opponent to score against them in that time. Gary Cahill found his own net in comical fashion, hooking in Jesus Navas’ cross.

A lesser side, a lesser group would have concluded it wasn’t their day. Chelsea showed their steel, their resolve and their counter-attacking prowess. Even when it appeared Guardiola had outmanoeuvred Conte, coming closer to finding flaws in the Italian’s 3-4-2-1 system by adopting a bolder 3-2-4-1 shape, pressing Chelsea to distraction and harrying them into errors, the league leaders prevailed.

“I saw lots of character from my team,” said Conte. He also witnessed three instances of counter-attacking at its most clinical; Diego Costa, released by Fabregas, levelled with purposeful power. Willian, found by Costa, shot past a strangely motionless Claudio Bravo. Eden Hazard escaped Aleksandar Kolarov as easily as Willian had to add a third.

Guardiola was as incisive in his comments. “In the boxes we are not strong enough,” he accepted. “This is a problem we have had all season. It is difficult for us to score goals. We concede them very easily.” Chelsea have six clean sheets in eight league games, City just two all season. Purist principles are undermined by a lack of pragmatism.

A side with an abundance of attacking talent have mustered 72 attempts at goal in their last four home league games. Only 23 have been on target, only four goals. It helps explain why they have only got three points.

Kevin De Bruyne struck the bar. Cahill cleared off his own line to deny Aguero. Thibaut Courtois excelled to thwart the Belgian and the Argentinian. “We didn’t win because we missed a lot of chances, not because of the referee,” Guardiola said

Anthony Taylor made himself few friends at the Etihad by rejecting two penalty appeals, both correctly, and refusing to dismiss Luiz when he flirted with a red card by blocking off Aguero in the first half. Instead the Brazilian finished the game and acted magnanimously, refusing to criticise his attacker while delivering a pertinent piece of analysis.

“We didn’t lose our heads,” he said. City did.

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