Chelsea breathe again. This was a victory to ease any nerves generated by the sight of their lead at the top of the division trimmed to single figures, a win that has surely squeezed the life from Manchester City’s lingering hopes of mounting a late challenge and keeps Tottenham Hotspur, for all their late rally in distant south Wales, at more than arm’s length. A tight contest was claimed by the hosts here and the success will restore the swagger to the leaders’ title pursuit. It only seems a matter of time.
The manner of this win, ultimately rather ground out after Chelsea’s own enterprising play had earned them a first-half lead, will have pleased Antonio Conte. He had exposed the tension as much as any of his players, bouncing up and down in exasperated complaint for much of the dying stages while Pep Guardiola surveyed the scene almost in resignation. He hardly acknowledged John Stones’s late miss, City’s last opportunity to salvage a draw. Instead, this arena bellowed in relieved delight. Momentum is restored.
There had been an urgency to the home side from the outset, with Chelsea clearly intent upon taking out three days of pent up frustration on City and, in the process, effectively eliminating another contender from the title race. That unexpected loss to Crystal Palace on Saturday had stung the leaders’ pride, for all that their attacking display had been as vibrant as ever against a team embroiled in a relegation scrap. “We have the opportunity to respond immediately, in a positive way,” offered Conte pre-match. Their eagerness to make amends was epitomised by the manner in which Eden Hazard tore into these opponents, exposing Jesús Navas’s uncertainty as a makeshift right-back and capitalising on the understandable rustiness displayed by Fabian Delph, on his first league start of the season, and Vincent Kompany.
The centre-half had not started a top-flight game since mid-November, his campaign a prolonged spasm of injury, though his confrontation with his compatriot felt like a mismatch. Hazard was simply in the mood. He was turning just as smartly away from Stones before the break, leaving the City defender flummoxed near the touchline, with his plunder for the evening already swollen to a brace by then. Hazard can be unplayable at times, his close control a thing of beauty, even if he had benefited from Willy Caballero’s sloppiness at his opening goal with his shot from César Azpilicueta’s pull-back flicking off Kompany’s head and through the keeper’s weak attempt to block with his right hand.
Hazard’s second goal would restore the hosts’ lead after 35 minutes, Cesc Fàbregas having found Pedro with a precise slide-rule pass which panicked Fernandinho into clipping the Spaniard. Mike Dean awarded the penalty and, just as Caballero thought he had salvaged some pride by blocking Hazard’s spot-kick, the Belgian tapped the rebound into the empty net. No one can match the 10 goals the winger has scored in this arena this season.
Yet, for all that Chelsea can be exquisite springing forward, there is fragility at the back which opponents are learning to exploit. This was never likely to be an occasion to celebrate a first clean sheet in the league since January and, when City stirred, they boasted pace and invention of their own. Leroy Sané, gliding upfield menacingly, unnerved Kurt Zouma at will with the Frenchman’s selection – his first league start since February 2016, and an appearance curtailed at the break – representing Conte’s first tweaking of his back three since September. Sergio Agüero was just as pesky, scuttling at a retreating rearguard, though the visitors had still been inexplicably presented with their equaliser. Thibaut Courtois’ attempt to clear had merely presented the ball to David Silva and, when the Spaniard’s resultant shot was parried, Agüero converted with ease.
City were chasing this contest again soon after half-time, Kompany looping a header on to the top of the bar and Fernandinho, with his back to goal and deemed to be onside by the officials, skying an awkward volley wildly over the bar when free in front on the edge of the six-yard box. Those misses had both managers fidgeting uncomfortably in their technical areas, with Conte’s unease born of the reality the visitors had mustered considerably more authority to their play after the interval. Stones’s free header from Silva’s corner, planted straight at a grateful Courtois, merely added to local anxiety.
Yet, aside from Agüero finding the side-netting having been left to loiter unnoticed at the far post, chances were scarce. The constant rat-a-tat of substitutions disrupted their rhythm, Chelsea content to sit deep and pounce when they could on the counter-attack. Late on Nolito’s fine pass, met by Agüero, was kept out desperately by Courtois though it was Stones, from the resultant corner, who missed the most presentable of opportunities as he volleyed over the bar from inside the six-yard box. With that miss went City’s chance. For Chelsea, this was another step towards triumph.