Kevin De Bruyne fires Manchester City 13 points clear of toothless Chelsea
It is fair to say that Kevin De Bruyne has history with Chelsea. And not only because of his frustrating spell at the club earlier in his career. The Manchester City midfielder was wounded on every level by them in last season’s Champions League final – roughed up by Antonio Rüdiger, his game ended early with a fractured eye socket; condemned, as well, to a runners-up medal.
This was a measure of revenge. It had been a meandering meeting of first versus distant second in the Premier League, marked mainly by what did not happen. Romelu Lukaku did not execute a straightforward pass which could have set up Hakim Ziyech and the Chelsea striker did not beat Ederson when though on goal. For City, Jack Grealish did not finish when one on one with Kepa Arrizabalaga.
But City were the better team, 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 in between the lines, getting goalside of N’Golo Kanté, and then the strength to ride the Chelsea midfielder’s attempted slide tackle. Finally, when 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 appeared to show him too much of the far corner.
Chelsea had needed to win to keep their faint hopes of a title challenge alive but City, who kicked off 10 points clear of the visitors, will not be caught by them now. Can Liverpool stop City? It feels unlikely after this, a 12th league win on the spin for Pep Guardiola’s machine. He is primed for an incredible fourth title in five years and this is what a dynasty looks like. For Chelsea, it is now two wins in eight in the competition. They have let their standards slip.
City carry such a fear factor that opposing teams can have damage limitation as a legitimate end. Still, it was disappointing to see how Chelsea set up, Thomas Tuchel’s back three looking more like a five and Christian Pulisic and Ziyech often deep in the inside forward roles. Mason Mount would be used only as an 81st-minute substitute. Chelsea were happy to cede the initiative to City, asking them whether they could break them down. “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, probing for incision. Chelsea wanted to counter and they had the chances to do so, mainly in the opening quarter of the game, only to miss the final pass.
Tuchel’s trademark brand of professional dramatics were on show because Ziyech was guilty of misplacing two balls, one for Lukaku, who had rushed up the inside right channel. But it was the centre-forward who erred most grievously in the 10th minute.
Lukaku had benefited when John Stones missed a tackle, allowing him to surge forward, and he had the option to shoot or to go left or right. He chose the latter, trying to usher in Ziyech, only to overhit the pass dreadfully. Ziyech was also offside. It felt like Chelsea could live to regret that.
Chelsea defended well in front of their penalty area but they struggled to get out of their half, especially before the interval – a consequence of how high and aggressively City pressed.
Stones had headed straight at Arrizabalaga from a corner in the 14th minute and a snapshot of the first period from a City point of view came shortly after the half hour. Phil Foden, who played in the false nine role, sliced up the inside left, exploding past a clutch of dark blue shirts to cross, but there was nobody attacking the six-yard box.
The big moment of the first half came on 39 minutes. Alonso played Kovacic into trouble and, with De Bruyne all over him, the Chelsea midfielder tried to move it square. De Bruyne made the tackle and the ball spun kindly for Grealish who, rather abruptly, had only Arrizabalaga to beat. Chelsea were exposed but Grealish could not finish, Arrizabalaga out quickly and able to turn his shot past the post.
Chelsea had not mustered a shot on goal before the interval but they sprang forward to do so straight after the restart when Kovacic released Lukaku. He knew what he wanted to do: open up his body and bend a left-footed shot past Ederson, who was high off his line. The trouble was that everybody in the stadium also knew the plan, including Ederson, who dived right to save. It would be Chelsea’s only shot on target and, for Lukaku, it would be a day to forget.
Tuchel apart, there was a strange lack of energy about such a big game for long spells, including from the stands. The Chelsea support waved inflatables of the Champions League trophy; their City counterparts searched for something to get behind.
De Bruyne provided it. He had worked Arrizabalaga with a free-kick and Sterling had dragged a shot wide of the far post from a Foden pass when De Bruyne bent the game to the force of his will. The Chelsea substitute, Timo Werner, would see a shot blocked while Foden fired high late on. City had done enough.