Chelsea struck a major blow in the Premier League title race as they became the first side to take points away from the Etihad this season, with Branislav Ivanovic’s strike providing them with all three in a richly deserved 1-0 victory over Manchester City.
The match had been billed as a classic encounter of attack against defense, with City’s firepower matching up against Chelsea’s efficient pragmatism. While that narrative largely held true, the real story was the combination of Chelsea’s tactical discipline and team ethic, with their willingness and ability to exploit their opponents’ lack of it.
While City have shown vulnerability on occasions this season, it was extraordinary to see how, both due to tactics and the personnel on the field, exposed City were left in a match of this magnitude. Certainly the battle in the dugout was won by Jose Mourinho, who had Nemanja Matic and David Luiz doing superb jobs just in front of the back four to provide a solid foundation.
But in bringing in Ramires for Oscar and moving Willian to the center, he ensured he had an abundance of pace to hurt City on the break. This was a performance that went beyond merely parking the bus. Time and again Chelsea tore through City, who were missing the dynamism of Fernandinho and instead had Martin Demichelis operating in midfield. The Argentinean, whose lack of pace was laid bare, may get much criticism, but arguably more culpable was the lack of discipline of his fellow midfielders David Silva, Jesus Navas and, particularly Yaya Toure.
With Eden Hazard outstanding and Willian not far behind, Chelsea could have won far more comfortably if they had been more ruthless in front of goal, hitting the woodwork on three occasions. City may have run roughshod over the rest of the Premier League this season, but they were crudely exposed on this occasion.
The two sides now sit level on points in the Premier League, just two points behind Arsenal in a title race that becomes more intriguing by the week.
Both sides showed signs of nerves for the big occasion early on, with Petr Cech and Gary Cahill almost having a costly miscommunication in the opening seconds, before Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic went for the same ball in their own box to nearly gift a chance to Willian. But it was the error from the home side that proved the real portent of what was to come.
There were some positive signs for City going forward in the opening stages. In particular, Aleksandar Kolarov was providing a regular threat finding space marauding forward and drilling in crosses from the left. One so nearly provided the opening goal, as Yaya Toure came inches from connecting with it at the back post.
Toure also went close with an effort narrowly over, again demonstrating the midfielder’s constant focus on getting forward. As expected, Chelsea looked to exploit that forward-thinking mentality that permeated throughout the side on the break, although few could have predicted just how effective it would be and how vulnerable City would look.
They should have been in front earlier than they eventually were. Willian took full advantage of Demichelis’ lack of mobility and lack of defensive support from the rest of City’s midfield as he burst clear to lead a four-on-one breakaway. Unfortunately the man he laid the ball off to was Ramires and the midfielder’s shot was at a good height for Joe Hart who made a smart stop.
Still, it was a stark warning that City failed to heed and five minutes later they were behind. City’s defense was woefully exposed, with players not only way out of position but just standing around aimlessly in their efforts to make up the ground. That first allowed Ramires a shot in the box that Kompany blocked, but only as far as Ivanovic, who had the space to blast in a stunning left-footed effort first-time into the bottom corner.
The goal appeared to make City even more edgy and reckless, with mistakes being made at an astounding frequency. In many ways they were fortunate to be just a solitary goal behind at the break. Hazard continued to torment the opposition, breezing past Pablo Zabaleta down the left before firing in a low cross that Samuel Eto’o met at the far post but could only shoot against the outside of the upright.
The pattern continued after the break. Chelsea came close to a second as City’s defense again switched off in the opening minutes. The woodwork was struck again too when Matic exposed the gaping hole in City’s midfield by striding forward and blasting a 25-yard shot against the angle of post and bar. Completing the hat-trick was Cahill, whose header from a Willian corner dropped against the bottom of the post with Hart unmoved.
It took until the final 20 minutes, helped by the introduction of Stevan Jovetic for Alvaro Negredo and an abandoning of two out-and-out strikers, for Manchester City to build some consistent pressure on Chelsea’s back line.
But when they did get opportunities in the box, there finishing proved as off-key as the rest of their game. Toure had already drilled an effort wide before Dzeko completed his poor night by miscuing in front of goal from Zabaleta’s cut back. Silva did similarly from another potent cross from Kolarov. When Jovetic had a shot tipped over by Petr Cech in injury time City’s hope of an unlikely and ultimately underserved equalizer were over.