When the story comes to be told of the 2016-17 championship perhaps this will be the occasion that Chelsea look back upon as the clearest evidence yet that they could start to think of themselves as having authentic title aspirations. They rode their luck at times – discounting the spectacular own goal from Gary Cahill – and their opponents were entitled to be aggrieved about some of the refereeing decisions. Yet nobody could question the endurance of Antonio Conte’s men, their competitive courage and the tactical acumen of their manager.
Unfortunately for them, this occasion will be remembered more for the extraordinary scenes in stoppage time when City, to put it bluntly, lost the plot and a fractious, emotional game spiralled out of control. First, Sergio Agüero was sent off for a diabolical challenge on David Luiz but that told only part of the story as the two sets of players clashed by the touchline and Fernandinho could be in serious trouble after grabbing Cesc Fàbregas by the neck and eventually pushing him with enough force the Spaniard ended up in the crowd. Fernandinho was also shown a red card but he, and City, may face further action when the Football Association’s disciplinary department gets hold of the video replays. To put it into context, both managers were on the pitch, trying desperately to stop it getting any worse. As for Agüero, he can expect a four-game ban as this is his second such suspension of the season.
It was an absorbing contest, laced with controversy, and City may debate some of the refereeing decisions from Anthony Taylor, in particular the incident in the first half when David Luiz could feasibly have been sent off for halting Agüero’s run at goal. That, however, does not excuse what happened in the final exchanges and, more important, there was another reminder here that Guardiola’s team are going to find it difficult to win the league if they cannot start to defend with more authority. Having taken the lead, it must have been startling for their manager to see the way his team lacked any semblance of control in the second half.
Diego Costa began the comeback just before the hour and the next two goals stemmed from the kind of breakaway attacks that has exposed City on several occasions already this season. Willian was virtually alone when he ran clear to give Chelsea the lead. From one penalty area to the other, City had been opened up in a matter of seconds and it was a similar story in the final minute of normal time when Eden Hazard raced away to confirm an eight successive league win for Conte’s team.
That made it a desperately disappointing afternoon for City bearing in mind they led at half-time and the opportunity, two minutes before Costa’s equaliser, when the best passing exchange of the match ended with Kevin De Bruyne turning the ball against the crossbar. De Bruyne was inside the six-yard area at the time but the chance to take a 2-0 lead was lost and the remainder of the match merely reiterated that Guardiola is still to get the balance right between attack and defence.
More than anything, however, they will look back to what happened on the half-hour mark, when De Bruyne’s long pass over the top sent Agüero chasing after two Chelsea defenders. César Azpilicueta’s attempt to play the ball off his thigh back to Thibaut Courtois fell short and Agüero would have fancied his chances in a sprint against David Luiz. His opponent seemed to realise as much, leaning in with sufficient force to unbalance Agüero but also applying enough disguise to get away with it.
That was a reprieve for Chelsea because if Taylor had given the free-kick the referee’s next decision would have been whether Agüero, running in diagonally but still 30 yards from goal, had been denied a clear scoring opportunity and, if so, the visitors would have been a man down with more than an hour of the game still to go.
Taylor had already given Cahill the benefit of the doubt when David Silva tried to get past him inside the penalty area and the ball came off one of Chelsea centre-back’s arms. The referee duly spent large parts of the first half being reminded by an exasperated crowd of his alleged boyhood allegiances to Manchester United and the volume turned up again when a second penalty appeal, this time involving N’Golo Kanté’s challenge on Ilkay Gündogan, was turned down later in the half.
The opening goal came shortly afterwards and Agüero may consider, on reflection, that Cahill had suffered enough indignity without the striker rubbing it in by patting him on his head as he ran away in celebration. Jesús Navas had supplied the cross and, as own goals go, this was a spectacular one, with a shanked volley just beneath the joint of crossbar and post.
The game changed when De Bruyne’s close-range effort came off the bar. Costa’s equaliser was another demonstration of his ability to outmuscle opponents, on this occasion Nicolás Otamendi, before delivering a low right-foot shot past Claudio Bravo. Costa also played the decisive pass for Willian’s goal and City were all over the place by the time Hazard ran on to Marcos Alonso’s long pass to score Chelsea’s third and set up the bad-tempered finale.