Pep Guardiola’s early nemeses have joined forces. The Catalan’s first defeat as Manchester City manager was inflicted by Mauricio Pochettino, his second by Chelsea. In his maiden season in England, 2016-17, his City finished a distant third, behind Chelsea and Pochettino’s Tottenham. His quest to win the Champions League with City eventually ended in June: two reasons why it was not concluded earlier were Pochettino, whose Spurs side eliminated City in 2019, and Chelsea, who beat them in the 2021 final.
And yet as Guardiola goes to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, it is having knocked Chelsea off their perch. The 2017 Premier League title was Chelsea’s fifth in 14 seasons, and they finished 15 points ahead of City. Since then, they have not mustered a title challenge. City have claimed 154 points more in the subsequent six campaigns; they are already 12 ahead after 11 games now.
“In that period, they won the Champions League with Thomas Tuchel but is true that they were not close to winning the Premier League in those seasons,” Guardiola reflected. If Chelsea were the role models, the club who got a sudden injection of cash and went on to become champions of first England and then Europe, now they are the salutary warning.
This week, City qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League with two games to go. Chelsea are not in Europe at all, the product of a 12th-place finish last season. They are proof there is no guarantee of perpetual success.
“Any comment about Chelsea, I’m not there,” Guardiola said. “But we always remind ourselves. I said to the players, ‘celebrate because one day, maybe we are not there if we stop doing what we have to do.’ Maybe the opponents are better than us and we will not be there. The fact that what we have done in the past, we are doing well, you can go down and the down never ends; you can be more and more and more. Not for the fact we are just named Manchester City and the last years have been good does it mean that it’s going to happen in the future. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be good 10 years from tomorrow.”
For Chelsea, it has certainly felt as though the downward spiral was never-ending in 2023; so far in the year, Brentford’s Ethan Pinnock has played in as many Premier League wins at Stamford Bridge as the former British record signing Enzo Fernandez; that status instead rests with the £115m midfielder Moises Caicedo, who has claimed three points on his new home ground as often for Brighton as he has for Chelsea.
City’s success has not come on the cheap, but nor has it been inevitable. Chelsea are an illustration of that. Spending is not an answer without a strategy. Their decline has been fast-tracked by Todd Boehly; an outlay of over £1bn on players came with precious little of the planning that helped bring Guardiola a treble, and none of the continuity. Pochettino inherited potential, but also a mess.
Some of City’s business has been funded by Chelsea’s largesse. If – and it remains if – a Chelsea revival has begun, it may be fast-tracked by two talents Guardiola discarded. Only Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have scored more goals for Guardiola than Raheem Sterling, who got 120, but a mere nine in his first year at Stamford Bridge. Cole Palmer scored for City in the Community Shield and the Super Cup this summer and was then sold.
Now Palmer has three goals and three assists in his last five games while Sterling has struck four times already this season. “He’s playing really good, he is back in his best moments from what I’ve seen lately,” said Guardiola. “He always creates incredible dangers for the opponents, what he did for many years for us, part of the big success we have done in the early ages, Raheem was very important.” He was less effusive about Palmer. “He wanted game time and he has it, so congratulations,” he added.
Each was integral in what was arguably the best result of the Boehly era, along with last season’s double over the eventual Champions League semi-finalists AC Milan: Monday’s 4-1 win over a Tottenham team who had been league leaders. Yet it had a farcical feel, a game shaped by the red cards that reduced Pochettino’s former club to nine men. It is, though, Chelsea’s only win against any of the supposed big six or Newcastle since the start of last season: they have lost four games to City without scoring in that time.
City head to Stamford Bridge as favourites. Guardiola, nevertheless, thinks that, after their precipitous slide, Chelsea will be on the way up again. “Sooner or later, Chelsea will be there fighting for the title; no doubt,” he said. “The quality in all departments is there.” But the last time Chelsea challenged for the title, Guardiola was in his awkward first year in England. Now, with their dominance entrenched and Chelsea reinvented as the most expensive underachievers in the history of the Premier League, it feels like another era.