CHELSEA 1 (Hudson-Odoi 90+2)
MANCHESTER CITY 3 (Gundogan 18, Foden 21, De Bruyne 34)
By Nick Callow
WAS this the match when Manchester City emerged as Premier League title favourites again, or were Chelsea too poor to be judged by? These and many more questions will be answered as the New Year unfolds, but few teams would have lived with City’s three-goal first half performance.
An emphatic third consecutive victory takes City to within four points of leaders Liverpool. They have a game in hand too and this comfortable win was achieved amid the background of having SIX players unavailable after testing positive for COVID-19.
Last season’s title was settled here in a glorious June match, but only because Chelsea’s win confirmed Liverpool as Champions for the first time in 30 years. This freezing Sunday evening encounter also felt significant.
Other clubs are up there today, but the bookies will be scrambling if Pep Guardiola’s side maintain this form.
And they will be pricing up Chelsea manager Frank Lampard in the less-than-seemly sack race after this defeat sent his side tumbling down to eighth in the table, with four defeats from their last six games.
Ending Lampard’s attempt to make Chelsea great again would be harsh, if not foolish, with so much promise in his squad. Owner Roman Abramovich has, however, dismissed bigger names in greater positions of strength before.
Between them Chelsea and City have won the title in nine of the last 16 seasons so it is not as if Lampard and his men are unused to the pressure of being expected to win every match. But they have lost their confidence and cohesion in recent weeks.
The scoreline flattered a Chelsea side with no answer to City’s resolute defending and ruthless attacks.
It must have made for painful viewing on TV for those Chelsea supporters who continued watching after City scored three goals in the opening 34 minutes through Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne.
And this after Chelsea, with five changes to their starting line-up, started the livelier team against a gathering of three City defenders who had not conceded a goal in their previous seven matches when teamed together.
Their American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, however, was making his Premier League debut in Ederson’s absence though illness. An early nervous error gifted Chelsea a great free-kick chance when he needlessly picked up a back pass.
Chelsea’s refreshed line-up was initially full of running. They pressed high and attacked with speed but it was City who created the better chances. De Bruyne dragged a shot wide with only Edouard Mendy to beat with 15 minutes gone and Raheem Sterling had a shot blocked soon after.
A minute later and City were off and running with a deserved Gundogan goal. Foden found him just outside the Chelsea area and the German midfielder turned with a balletic pirouette to drive a low right foot shot which cracked around an empty Stamford Bridge like a sniper’s gunshot.
If Chelsea were not already fatally wounded they were gasping their last breath after 21 minutes when Foden scored an even better goal. Zinchenko and De Bruyne combined before a deft low cross to the near post was turned past Mendy with the sweetest of first time left foot shots.
City sensed blood and squandered another couple of half chances before scoring an almost comical third with 34 minutes gone. They broke with pace from defending a Chelsea free-kick and Sterling took the ball from the half way line with N’Golo Kante desperately giving chase. A well-earned shot against the woodwork was returned into the back of the net by a jubilant De Bruyne.
Another glorious one-touch City move ended with Gundogan flicking the ball narrowly wide as Chelsea almost fell further behind in the 44th minute. A further goal would have been well deserved.
This was the City that has lit up the Premier League so many times in recent seasons, a masterclass to show Guardiola still has the menace and motivation as he prepares to celebrate his 50th birthday later this month.
Of course he looked agitated on the touchline as City struggled to score further goals in the second half, but that is how he rolls when things are going well.
Chelsea were marginally better and scrambled a consolation goal through Callum Hudson-Odoi with the last kick of the game. Improvement, however, was not hard to achieve with the game already lost and only pride to play for.
It was a similar story when Lampard’s key players went AWOL at Arsenal a week ago. He will probably welcome easier looking fixtures of Morecambe at home in the FA Cup this Sunday before a short trip down the Thames to struggling Fulham when they resume league duties on 15 January.
No doubt he will have to ride out a forensic examination of his managerial credentials before then but it he knows it comes with the territory.
Proud Catalan Guardiola, meanwhile, can bask in the glory of further praise for his abilities as he plots the possible strengthening of an already strong squad in the January transfer window.
A return to action for his leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero hinted he might have enough in the tank without spending big again.
Mendy 5; Azpilicueta 5, Zouma 5, Thiago Silva 6, Chilwell 6; Kante 5 (Gilmour 64), Kovacic 5 (Havertz 77), Mount 6; Ziyech 6 (Hudson-Odoi 64), Werner 5, Pulisic 5.
Man City: 4-3-3
Steffen 6, Cancelo 7, Stones 7, Dias 7, Zinchenko 7; Bernardo Silva 7, Rodri 8, Gundogan 8 (Fernandinho 75); Sterling 7, De Bruyne 9 (Aguero 86), Foden 8 (Mahrez 86).
Ref: Anthony Taylor