This was the first time Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte had ever met as managers and, if this encounter is any kind of benchmark, it might become the Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier of the Premier League
The match, which took Chelsea four points clear at the top of the Premier League, finished with the kind of brawl that Madison Square Gardens would have recognised. Deep into stoppage time, the contest between Sergio Aguero and David Luiz that had been one of the themes of the afternoon exploded.
Had this been a boxing match, this would have been a knockout from the ropes. As he contemplated the match, Guardiola remarked that he was “curious” about the outcome. He sounded like a scientist about to conduct a laboratory experiment. You did not have to possess Guardiola’s knowledge of football to analyse the results.
Teams that do not drive home their advantages in possession and chances always risk defeat. Whether at Barcelona or Bayern, Guardiola’s rare defeats have come against teams that have known how to use the counter-attack and here all three Chelsea goals came from breakaways.
This was Chelsea’s eighth straight win and, like the last at home to Tottenham, Conte’s side had to come from behind against one of their title rivals.
This, far more than the Manchester derby in September, appeared like a contest between two clubs most likely to finish up as Premier League champions. Everything about the game from the first tackle by Nicolas Otamendi on Diego Costa that drew the first yellow card of the game to the cold-eyed way Willian put away Chelsea’s second felt intense. The game began at 12.30pm but the deep December gloom made it feel like an evening kick-off.
It was not the usual match at the Etihad Stadium, where the screens normally proclaim statistics showing that Manchester City enjoyed 70 per cent plus possession. This was an in your face encounter with space at a premium.
Willian used his celebration to pay tribute to those who died in the Chapecoense plane crash (Getty)
Injuries had forced both managers to make a change. The involvement of Fabregas, who had last started for Chelsea in September’s debacle against Arsenal, and Jesus Navas, who replaced Raheem Sterling, appeared to weaken both teams. In fact, both were involved in their sides’ respective opening goals while Navas should have had more than just the one assist.
The referee, Anthony Taylor, was surely right to dismiss both Aguero and Fernandinho but the interval had seen him booed off. There were two incidents. The first had come when David Silva had taken the ball past Gary Cahill, who had lost his footing and then appeared to touch the ball in the penalty area with his forearm.
Hazard wrapped the three points up with a strike in added-on time (Getty)
Later in the first half, Aguero seized on a weak pass from Cesar Azpilicueta 35 yards out and then tried to take the ball past Luiz before falling. It appeared that Luiz had fouled him. It was a long way out but Luiz was the last man and Taylor must have considered a red card. To Guardiola’s fury, he gave nothing. The battle between the Argentine and the Brazilian simmered for the remainder of the match before boiling over completely.
Midway through the first half, Manchester City took control of the game with Thibaut Courtois tipping a fierce shot from Aguero over the bar and then, just as the interval beckoned, one of Navas’ less-threatening crosses was diverted past his own keeper by Cahill’s outstretched leg.
Fernandinho grabbed Fabregas by the neck in the stoppage time brawl (Getty)
The quarter of an hour after the restart was the period when Manchester City ought to have won this game. De Bruyne forced Courtois into one save and then somehow deflected Navas’ cross on to the bar. In between Aguero had seized on a weak pass from Marcos Alonso, taken it past the keeper and only a diving block from Cahill stopped the second.
Almost immediately after De Bruyne’s miss, Chelsea equalised. A long ball from Fabregas was brought under control by Diego Costa, who outmuscled Otamendi, turned and shot. Ten minutes later, Chelsea broke away again. A long pass from Costa found Willian clear on goal and the Brazilian did not miss. Guardiola responded by throwing on every available striker but once more Chelsea waited for the moment to strike and Eden Hazard’s goal was the cue for the stadium to empty. Those who remained saw what was a great footballing contest disintegrate into an open brawl.
Manchester City: Bravo; Otamendi, Stones (Iheanacho 78), Kolarov; Fernandinho, Gundogan (Toure 76); Navas, De Bruyne, Silva, Sane (Clichy 69); Aguero.
Substitutes: Caballero (g), Sagna, Zabaleta, Fernando.
Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro (Willian 50), Costa, Hazard.
Substitutes: Begovic (g), Ivanovic, Oscar, Batshuayi, Chalobah, Aina.