Just as talk of a title race ratchets up, then, Chelsea merely pick up speed again.
This Eden Hazard-inspired goalkeeper-influenced 2-1 win over Manchester City does not quite mean the discussion goes back to when they win the title rather than if, given Tottenham Hotspur’s admirable late win at Swansea City, but it does instantly restore Chelsea’s intimidating aura after the weekend’s defeat to Crystal Palace. They responded so resolutely.
As for Pep Guardiola’s aura, that is significantly diminished. Beyond the fact City are now five games without a win in the league, this defeat represented the first time that he has last six times in a single league season, and the first time he has twice lost to the same manager in a single league season. As symbolic as it is significant, given that it happens to the manager of the champions-elect.
Guardiola just can’t quite get it right, and his side can’t quite seem to build on what they do well. That is not the case for Hazard at the moment, who is back on player-of-the-season form. Chelsea are meanwhile back on winning form, after such a brief halt.
It was a game almost completely played at hurricane pace. That is of course what both managers idealise but then they both also revealed in the last few days that they tend to obsess over errors much more than what they have done well, intensively poring over what went wrong with their teams until they figure them out. The wonder is how long they will spend on this, because it was a game ironically played at exactly the kind of pace where mistakes are inevitable, especially in defence.
Take the first few goals. Chelsea admittedly burst at City in a blur, but there was still so much space for Cesar Azpilicueta to run into and even more for him to pick out Hazard. The Belgian looked to pick his spot, only for the ball to deflect off the returned Vincent Kompany’s head and past Willy Caballero.
If there was some debate over whether the City goalkeeper was at fault for that, there could be no doubt his Chelsea counterpart was at fault for the equaliser. Initially a bit lax, Guardiola’s team got into gear once Sergio Aguero tore straight at David Luiz and Gary Cahill to shoot, and leave the two central defenders arguing about who was to challenge him. It seemed there was still confusion in the City backline when Thibaut Courtois then played a ball straight to David Silva moments later. The playmaker’s shot was parried, but only to the waiting Aguero to make it 1-1.
City looked to be on a wave again, only to again be undone in a self-damaging manager we have seen so often this season. Without the midfielders to properly control games, it means so much of their play and so many of their players are so rushed. Fernandinho then predictably rushed into the back of Pedro in the box, for a Chelsea penalty. Caballero redeemed himself for the earlier goal by saving Hazard’s shot, only for Hazard to instantaneously redeem himself for that by poking the ball past him.
This is perhaps the biggest issue with Guardiola’s side, even beyond the defending. In fact, the problems with the backline come because they just don’t control matches. They could actually do with occasionally taking some of that pace down, but then Guardiola could probably do with a City equivalent of Sergio Busquets more than any other player.
Chelsea don’t usually have that problem with controlling games, especially when they’re in the lead. It's a nice position for any team of course but particularly suits them for how it allows them to sit and then counter with scorching pace.
But while they generally did that with their usual conviction, they were forced into a reshuffle with the replacement of Kurt Zouma with Nemanja Matic, that also temporarily left them susceptible to deliveries. City had three similar occasions when they might have scored, first when Kompany headed onto the bar, second when Fernandinho blazed over when he might have done better, then when John Stones feebly hit a free header straight into the arms of Courtois.
It is going to be very difficult to wrestle the title out of Chelsea’s arms meanwhile. They look too durable, too resolute, no matter what Spurs seem to do.
Chelsea can match anyone for pace, since they are so clearly setting it.