It was Antonio Conte, as much as a nervous Chelsea support, who best betrayed the sense of anxiety which gripped here. The Italian spent most of the second half a frenzy of livid agitation on the edge of his technical area, frantically waving to his players and barking instructions or imploring the beleaguered fourth official, Bobby Madley, to offer plausible explanations for every tight decision. He is emotional at the best of times on the touchline, of course, but all his mannerisms were particularly exaggerated as time ebbed agonisingly from this contest.
He had stared in disbelief as John Stones went unnoticed just inside the six-yard box as Manchester City’s last corner of the contest veered into the penalty area, then puffed out his cheeks in relief as the centre-half’s awkward volley from in front of goal flew harmlessly over the bar. His own cheers were drowned amid the din at the final whistle seconds later. This victory squeezed the last breath of life from City’s vague challenge but, critically for Chelsea, also kept Tottenham Hotspur an arm’s length away. Spurs could mount their late rally in distant south Wales, but the seven-point lead is maintained. Everything about this win felt significant.
It was the kind that is secured by champions, not because the home side were at their scintillating best, despite Eden Hazard’s best efforts in establishing their lead before the interval. Rather, it was in the refusal to permit City an equaliser where Chelsea demonstrated their strength. This defence has been punctured too often of late, not least by lowly Crystal Palace at the weekend. Sergio Agüero’s equaliser here, converted into a gaping net after Thibaut Courtois had inexplicably cleared straight to David Silva, had ensured the leaders are still without a top-flight clean sheet since January. Yet they had still recovered their poise to edge back ahead, and then succeeded in containing the visitors’ late attempts to force parity.
City, as Pep Guardiola was keen to point out post-match, had enjoyed a fine 10-minute spell early on and had been by far the more authoritative of the two teams after the interval. The first six minutes of the second period had seen Fernandinho, on the turn, skying a volley over the bar and Vincent Kompany, on his first league start since November, looping a header on to the woodwork. Suddenly Leroy Sané and Agüero were menacing, Kevin De Bruyne more adventurous with his passes, and Silva threatening to orchestrate a revival as if these pedigree players had been reminded of their lofty reputations.
Yet the visitors’ increased threat actually coaxed the best from the home side. David Luiz roused himself, conjuring arguably his best performance of a fine campaign, while Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta blocked, tackled and forced away everything flung at them. That familiar trio had actually been disrupted from the start, the Spaniard thrust into a role at right wing-back in Victor Moses’ absence, but Kurt Zouma’s toils against Sané had been relieved by his withdrawal at the break. This team sought safety in familiarity thereafter. “We had a better balance and defended very well,” said Conte through a whisper, his throat raw from the evening’s instruction and exhaustion setting in.
It was the kind of defiant scrap the Italian would have relished in his playing days, his current charges heaving themselves to stifle City’s revival. Hazard, a match-winner with his two goals, conceded it was not always “beautiful” to behold but having experienced such a rare and untimely loss on Saturday, this was solely about recovery. His first-half rewards, the opener benefiting from a flick off Kompany’s head and Willy Caballero’s weak attempt to block with his right hand, would claim the points.
Chelsea’s second, plucked 10 minutes from the interval, stemmed from a penalty awarded for Fernandinho’s trip on Pedro, with Cesc Fàbregas’ slide-rule pass in the build-up a thing of beauty. Caballero had at least redeemed himself to a certain extent by blocking Hazard’s penalty, but the Belgian slid in the rebound while the goalkeeper was still prone on the turf. No one can match the 10 goals the winger has scored in this arena this term. “It was a big win,” he added. “We can do better than the way we played but after a defeat, it’s good to come back. Our target is clear.”
So is that of City. For all the exquisite nature of so much of their attacking play, and the periods of dominance they have enjoyed in both fixtures against the champions elect, Guardiola’s team lost both and are 14 points adrift, with qualification for the top four now their priority. The manager, while satisfied his team had performed “1,000 miles better” than in their draw with Arsenal on Sunday, put their failures in the head-to-head down to Chelsea being “better than us in the boxes”. He will address those issues in the summer and City will come back stronger. Just as Chelsea did here after their weekend blip. The title is edging ever closer.