When Manchester City and Chelsea meet, it can be the season’s most meaningful fixture. Chelsea’s 3-1 win at the Etihad Stadium last season felt important then and assumed huge proportions later. It was an eighth successive league win for Antonio Conte’s team – eight of 13, as it transpired – and the first away from home against elite opponents. It was a day when City imploded, with Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho sent off in stoppage time. Shorn of the suspended pair, City lost at Leicester City the following week. Their title race was not officially over, but Chelsea were disappearing into the distance.
When City prevailed 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in September, it indicated how the balance of power had changed. Conte’s counter-attacking blueprint worked last season. Pep Guardiola’s possession game prevailed this. Once again, it was the first defining away victory. Once again, others followed. Like City the previous season, Chelsea promptly lost their next league game. A title challenge again became a battle for a top-four finish. Guardiola has admitted he is surprised at how Chelsea’s campaign has panned out. “If you asked me at the start of the season, yes,” he said.
But last season, Conte became the first manager to do a top-flight double over Guardiola in a season. Now the Spaniard could become only the second to inflict one on the Italian. On the field, Kevin de Bruyne has personified the two clubs’ shifting fortunes. The Belgian hit the Chelsea bar in December 2016 when he should have put City 2-0 up; instead they lost. He scored a far more spectacular goal at Stamford Bridge five months ago. The decisive impact illustrates why he is set to succeed Chelsea’s resident destroyer N’Golo Kante as Footballer of the Year.
A reunion with a club who only granted him two league starts may have a personal significance for City’s self-effacing maestro. It has a greater relevance for Chelsea. City’s lead is so commanding that they could survive dropping points at home for the first time in 195 days or a second league defeat of the season. But having in effect knocked Arsenal out of the race for the Uefa Champions League places on Thursday, they could do considerable damage to Chelsea’s chances.
With five of their last nine league games at home and none of their journeys to top-six opponents, Chelsea have time to recover. With three defeats in their last four top-flight matches and a solitary away win in all competitions since December 12, the trend is nevertheless worrying.
It all puts the onus on Conte: play for the point or show more ambition? “The most important thing in every game is to have a tactical plan offensively and defensively,” he said on Friday. “We must have great balance.” In short, Chelsea, will not go gung-ho. “You risk losing in a bad way,” Conte added.
He could reinforce the midfield that was run ragged by De Bruyne five months ago, but that may mean reducing his front three to a forward two. It will be instructive if he fields his record buy, Alvaro Morata, who has gone 10 games without a goal. Demoting the Spaniard would be a vote of no confidence, but Eden Hazard and Willian have been the more incisive attackers of late.
Conte could opt to shift Cesar Azpilicueta to right wing-back, using his best defender in direct opposition to Leroy Sane, the scourge of Arsenal on Thursday, but that would be another negative step. Guardiola has fewer decisions to make; principally whether to bring in John Stones or Aymeric Laporte instead of giving Vincent Kompany a third game in eight days. "Vincent is special," Guardiola said.
So is Aguero, who should resume his pursuit of a 200th City goal. If it is about statistics for them, Chelsea's concerns are greater: will they compete with the continental elite or be consigned to the Europa League next season?