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 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 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 or Mateo Kovacic could get close to him, there was a glorious right-footed curler that was too good 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 them, will not be caught by them now. Can Liverpool stop them? It feels unlikely after this, a 12th league win on the spin. Pep Guardiola is primed for an incredible fourth title in five years. This is what a dynasty looked like. For Chelsea, it is now two wins in eight in the competition. They have let their standards slip.
City are a ridiculously imposing prospect at the Etihad, so smooth, so unflappable. The battle lines were drawn early on as Raheem Sterling showed he had the beating of Marcos Alonso up the right flank. City were on the front foot, dominating the ball, probing for the killer pass, and Chelsea had to put everything into their defensive structure.
Thomas Tuchel had described City as the benchmark, although he knew how to beat them. Three times in three attempts he had done so in the closing weeks of last season – most famously in the Champions League final. The tone felt different here, and not only because of City’s convincing victory at Stamford Bridge in September.
Unflappable is not the adjective to describe Tuchel during a match and his brand of professional dramatics were on show as Chelsea missed a series of final balls which they simply had to make in the opening quarter. Ziyech had Tuchel hopping up and down when he missed two of them, one after Lukaku 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 options left and right. He chose the latter, trying to usher in Ziyech, only to overhit the pass dreadfully. It felt like a moment that Chelsea could live to regret.
Tuchel had reverted to his back three system after the midweek Carabao Cup win at Tottenham but it was more like a five for long spells. With the inside forwards also deep, Chelsea were happy to cede the initiative to City, asking whether they could break them down. “Boring, boring Chelsea,” grumbled the home crowd.
Chelsea defended well in front of their penalty area before the interval but they could not get out, they struggled to gain any sort of foothold higher up the pitch.
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 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 was a long way from being Lukaku’s day.
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.