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There was a time in his Premier League career when Sergio Aguero would rely mostly on the sheer power of his finishing when the title was at stake, but goals, wealth, fame and the passing of the years can do strange things to a man.
Perhaps Chelsea might still have come back to win this game if Aguero had buried his first-half penalty with the same ferocity that he once dispatched the winner against Queens Park Rangers on that famous day nine years ago, but this time, 258 goals into his City career, he felt like doing something different.
At an empty Etihad, with City one goal ahead and the third title of the Pep Guardiola era just a single win away, there was something of the great fading performer permitting himself to stray off script one last time.
Aguero’s attempt at an insouciant deception from the spot – otherwise known as the Panenka – turned into the easiest save that Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy made all day. After months of unyielding discipline in performance, this moment encapsulated City’s end-of-term frivolity better than any other. Even Guardiola, raging by the end over what he saw as a range of refereeing injustices, would have to admit there were others too.
City’s Champions League final opponents at the end of the month survived that penalty and came back to win the game in the second half. First through an equaliser by Hakim Ziyech – who scored the Wembley winner when the two sides met in last month’s FA Cup semi-finals – and then an injury-time goal from Marcos Alonso. It will not change the destination of the title but it does give that Champions League final – wherever it might be played – a greater sense of jeopardy than might earlier have been expected.
By the time Guardiola’s side next play, on Friday against Newcastle United, when a win will seal the seventh league championship in City’s history, their rivals Manchester United in second place will have played three times. Starting with Aston Villa on Sunday and then on to the Old Trafford double header against Leicester City and Liverpool on Tuesday and Thursday, a single point dropped by United will mean that the title is all but decided.
In the hours before kick-off, the blue flare smoke was blowing in the streets around the Etihad Stadium as the crowds gathered to salute the champions of 2020/2021, and while that will undoubtedly come soon, this was one more twist in the tale of a season that has much in store for City and Chelsea.
Afterwards Guardiola complained about a penalty denied his side when the Chelsea substitute was judged not to have fouled Raheem Sterling and he might have had a point. Even so, City were lucky that their captain for the day survived a bad challenge on 12 minutes on Timo Werner that could so easily have been a red card.
Tuchel and Guardiola, who were managerial rivals in the Bundesliga, are evidently comfortable in one another’s company and were long in conversation pitchside before the game. The German also finds himself on a formidable roll that has seen his team rise to third in the table now and eagerly awaiting two Cup finals.
More crucially, they have found a way to beat City, albeit on this occasion a much-changed version from the side that Guardiola will surely pick in the last game of the season.
Just the nine changes for Guardiola from the side that overcame Paris Saint-Germain in mid-week, his trust in his self-renewing match-winning machine as strong as ever. It meant that there was no Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker or Phil Foden among others – just Ederson and Ruben Dias retained.
Although by the end Guardiola had turned to Foden and Ilkay Gundogan as City went in search of the winner. Tuchel made six changes from the team that saw off Real Madrid. Yet there was something in the confidence with which Chelsea came back from a goal behind in the second half that makes this Champions League final harder to call.
Sterling is now in the second string as far as Guardiola is concerned and the Englishman was fortunate that Anthony Taylor and his Var, Stuart Attwell, did not take a dimmer view of an early wild challenge on Werner. They were satisfied with the award of a yellow card.
Among those rested by Tuchel were Mason Mount, Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell and there was another start for Billy Gilmour, just the second for him in the league since the turn of the year. Gradually, Chelsea found their possession count eroded towards the end of the first half when the game at last got interesting. For all his involvement in Alonso’s late winner, Werner’s confidence is still fragile and his troubled relationship with the offside law continues.
That said, eventually it was the misjudgement of Andreas Christensen that got City in behind for their goal. He stumbled over when duelling with Gabriel Jesus on the left and the cross was swept in by Sterling after Aguero’s lousy first touch. It was the last involvement for the Danish defender who went off injured.
That was perhaps a warning of the glorious farce to come when the Argentine stepped up to take a barely deserved penalty in the third minute of time added on at the end of the first half. By now Tuchel was raging at the embattled Jonathan Moss in the fourth official’s role when Taylor decided that an innocuous collision between Gilmour and Jesus merited a penalty. The stage was set for City's greatest-ever goalscorer and he chose this moment to deploy the Panenka.
There was a notable tell in his movement as the swing of the right leg slowed down at the crucial moment. Great credit to Edouard Mendy who spotted it like a batsman reading the slow delivery. The Chelsea goalkeeper had already gone to his right but had more than enough time to steady himself on the turf with his right hand, stand up and catch the shot one-handed. Aguero seemed to suppress a smile. After all those goals maybe he felt he could spare himself one reckless moment of indulgence.
Guardiola looked desolate. He seemed to sense the impending doom after the hour when his midfielder Rodri checked back into trouble in the middle of the pitch. He was well caught out by Cesar Azpilicueta who drove forward and worked the ball between himself, Christian Pulisic and Ziyech before the latter was teed up for a fine shot that he stroked out of the reach of Ederson.
As Guardiola complained about Zouma’s challenge on Sterling so Chelsea attacked one more time and Werner crossed for Alonso to finish. On their day, Guardiola’s side are unquestionably capable of beating anyone but Tuchel’s side have shown that when it is not that kind of day, then this Chelsea team are ready to pounce.
The bizarre winner but probably deserved
FT: Man City 1 Chelsea 2
Chelsea with a really strong second half performance, but all the talk will be about that Aguero penalty miss.
Perhaps it shouldn't be, because that is a big result in its own right for Chelsea in the top four race. They jump above Leicester and six points clear of West Ham.
They have also won back-to-back meetings against City. I don't think we will see that City system in the Champions League final but what a boost!
GOOOAAAAAALLL! Chelsea have scored a winner
It was a scuffy finish from Alonso but Chelsea have threatened that for the whole second half. Hudson-Odoi slipped the ball to Werner who made a dart in behind the right side of City's defence, and his pull back was met by a combination of Alonso and Hudson-Odoi and the ball looped up into the top corner. What a turnaround, and the camera goes straight to Aguero.
Three minutes of added time!
Chelsea threatening again as Hudson-Odoi burns past Ake but his cross-shot is claimed by Ederson. Can City carve out one final chance to seal the title?
Chelsea's disallowed 'winner'
That looked more of a penalty than the one in the first half. At the other end, Alonso gets in behind and went for the chip over Ederson who tipped over. City deal with it and then Mendy sweeps up behind the Chelsea defence.
The game see-sawing now but Laporte did well to get across and slow down Werner who was in space. City back on the ball, and Foden lofts a lovely ball over the top for Sterling and it looked like Zouma barged him over in the box! No penalty, and the game goes on.
That was more like it from City. Foden won the ball in midfield and Sterling fed the ball wide to Gundogan on the left. He whipped a low cross in but Foden's near post flick was too fine and the ball flew wide of the far post.
Cancelo's shot from the right is high, wide and handsome. City running out of puff which is understandable
Chelsea and Hudson_Odioi have the ball in the net but the flag goes up for offside. It was a close call but a good one it turns out by the linesman, the winger's left leg was offside when James fed the ball across the box. Var confirms it. Good move from Chelsea.
At the other end Zouma wins a big tackle in the box against Sterling.
Another one of those phoney chances, as Werner goes around Ederson and scores but was a yard or so offside. Eventually the flag goes up for offside, Mendy off for City, Zinchenko replaces him.
Another wicked cross swung in from Reece James that Laporte glances behind for a corner. The defending was not pretty but City clear the corner and are threatening through Jesus, but his left foot shot flies wide. Weaker side, and it just got stuck under his feet.
Chelsea are playing well now. They are having the better quality possession in the match and looking the more threatening. Ziyech cuts inside from the right and Ake fouls him. Tuchel bringing on Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.
Really dangerous Chelsea attack as James flashes a ball across the area after beating Mendy. Werner's studs were inches away from turning it home to make it 2-1 to Chelsea, who are coming on strong.
It's Aguero and Torres coming off for City. Their corner drops for Gundogan at the edge of the box but he slices his shot well over the bar.
Jorginho replaced Kante, presumably as Tuchel looks to preserve the legs of a player who has been in outstanding form. Cancelo gets back to halt Werner on the break.
Here come some of the City subs: Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan are getting stripped. Have to remember there is also no Bernardo, De Bruyne or Mahrez in this City team today. Jorginho is about to come on for Chelsea.
Alonso slides in to win the ball in the box but City have a box.
Chelsea have been better since the break and now they are streaming forward again through Kante but City scramble to deal with his chipped cross. Chelsea are getting joy against Mendy and Ake down City's right.
GOOOOAAALLL! Chelsea have the equaliser
Rodri was caught on the ball on halfway and Chelsea got a chance to do what they love: counter-attack. They worked the ball out to Azpilicueta, his cross was half cleared but Ziyech's snap shot from the edge of the box squeezes past Ederson into the bottom corner.
Half a chance for Pulisic and Chelsea after a terrible giveaway in his own half from Jesus. The winger worked half a yard on the edge of the box but blazed the shot miles over. Poor attempt for a player of his quality.
Chelsea starting to enjoy some possession higher up the pitch but struggling to penetrate City's back line. Alonso gets forward well but his cross is blocked by Cancelo. Chelsea have a throw by the corner flag.
City seem to keeping Chelsea at arm's length here, without really looking like extending their lead. Will Tuchel look to his bench as we approach the hour mark?
That would have been some goal from Aguero. Sterling found Torres with a raking diagonal, his knockdown dropped for Aguero 30 yards but he did not catch the volley and Mendy saved easily.
Chelsea get forward well through James but Ziyech's shot from range is straight at Ederson.
Good dart in behind the City defence from Werner, but he drags his shot from a tight angle past the near post. May well have been half a yard offside in any case.
A quiet start to the second period but City seeing lots of the ball and building well from the back. Chelsea have only threatened sporadically as an attacking force. Good defending from Cancelo to intercept a through ball.
We're back under way
Kurt Zouma is now on in the Chelsea defence.
The opening goal
That missed penalty
One of football's joys
HT: Man City 1 Chelsea 0
Well, a frantic end to the half. Guardiola unhappy with Aguero's penalty and Tuchel annoyed he was unable to bring Zouma on fro Christensen. The second half should be more open.
Aguero misses a Panenka!
Goes for the chip down the middle, but Mendy stopped his dive short and simply stood up and caught it. High comedy at the end of a fairly tame first half.
Chelsea all over the place with 10 men and get in behind again. Jesus collects the ball in the area and Gilmour is penalised for impeding him. Looked like Jesus ran across Gilmour in truth, but can see why the referee gave it.
Var check: Goal stands
Christensen is going off injured, big goal for Sterling who has been out of forme=.
GOOOOOAAAALLL! City have the breakthrough
Christensen, who was caught out on a straight ball earlier in the game, tried to control another long ball forward and Jesus picked his pocket.
Rather than shooting, Jesus squared for Aguero to tap home but his dreadful first touch took it into the path of Sterling who did the honours. Var is checking for a foul on Christensen, who is down injured.
Good strike from 25 yards or so by Ziyech that Ederson pushes wide, before Rudiger steps forward and shoots over the bar from distance. A little wild as half time approaches.
A lot of City's attacks have come down the flanks today, and it is well known that frequent crossing is sometimes a sign they are struggling. The home team seeing lots of the ball but not looking overly threatening.
Sterling looked to have run down a blind alley, but the ball sat up off Christensen and his snap shot on the volley was straight at Mendy.
Mendy gets forward well down the left and Christensen hooks his cross behind for a corner.
Sterling's challenge earlier in the game
Werner stays onside this time to peel into the left channel but Laporte slowed him down and his side-foot shot drifted tamely wide. A bit better from Chelsea as an attacking force.
Chelsea and Werner have the ball in net but the flag goes up for offside! Good attack down the left through Ziyech and Alonso, the wing-back's cross went all the way to James on the opposite side and Werner turned his cross-shot home. Unfortunately for Werner, he was two yards offside.
Chelsea's most dangerous move as they made in roads through the middle of City's defence but Alonso elected to leave it and the attack broke down. City had the chance to counter but Sterling's pass forced Aguero too wide.
Goof feet from Rodri in midfield to win a foul. But City give the ball away cheaply and Cancelo fouls Alonso.
Ake nips in to win the ball high up and feed Sterling but he got his pass across the area all wrong.
Chelsea get forward down the left with Werner, but Laporte wins the ball cleanly before he can get in the box. The forward sent down in pain but it was a good challenge.
City win a corner just as it looked Aguero was about to swivel on a loose ball in the box. Good delivery again, but a Chelsea head meets it, before Mendy comes and claims the next corner.
Chelsea finally feed a through ball down the sides of the City defenders for Werner, he gets there before Ederson but the angle narrowed on him as he ran towards the corner flag. He may have just been off. A warning for City.
Both teams showing each other plenty of respect. There is very little space to play out there, both sets of defending squeezing up to condense any space between the lines. Been two good defensive displays so far.
City momentarily pulled out of shape with Ake dragged out but Chelsea fail to make them pay. Then Sterling finds a pocket of space, spreads the ball to Mendy and passes all the way back to Rodri who shot on the stretch from miles out. Fortunate to take a deflection and win a corner.
Good delivery, but Ake's header loops over.
Big incident here...Sterling comes back to help his defence and catches Werner on the ankle with a heavy tackle right on the edge of the box. His studs were up but Var does not recommend harsher punishment. James' free-kick is blocked. Better from Chelsea.
Sterling underhits a pass towards Mendy and James sweeps up. Chelsea struggle to build any sort of attack again and City''s defenders are back on the ball.
City really tight together without the ball, Chelsea finding it hard to find any space between the lines and they are yet to go long into the space behind for Werner. City's defenders really pushing up.
Mendy flashes a speculative snap shot across goal.
City seeing all of the ball at the moment, Chelsea finally put a bit of a press on in the left corner through Ziyech but Rudiger pushes in and concedes a foul.
Sterling comes deep to collect and turns and runs at Chelsea but his poked through ball is misjudged. All very tactical so far as you might expect. Chelsea yet to settle into any passing rhythm. You wonder if they can exploit some of the space around Rodri.
First half chance of the game goes to City after Christensen mis-judges a long ball and lets Torres in behind but he shoots over from a tight angle.
City are playing with a back five with Mendy and Cancelo at wing-back. Rodri is almost on his own in midfield, with Sterling and Torres making a forward line of four either side of the two strikers.
Chelsea get us going, looking to keep the ball right from kick off.
The teams are out
Will be fascinating to see how City line up with and without the ball. Imagine they will want to get Sterling against Azpilicueta. He gave him a torrid in this fixture two seasons ago.
Chelsea are unbeaten in all seven away Premier League games under Thomas Tuchel (had lost 4 of the previous 5), conceding only three goals
Man City were 8th going into the reverse fixture v Chelsea on Jan 3 - have taken 17 more points than any team in the Premier League in 2021
"I'm so cautious. I think if you don't have it, you don't talk about it.
"Always I've said the Premier League is the most important title.
"Financially for the club, qualification for the Champions League is the most important title, maybe, but there is no doubt what is the most important thing.
"Of course the Champions League is so special, it's nice, but this one means consistency and many things."
Ruben Dias' immense season in numbers
The home bus arriving
Nine changes in total from City
It seems like Guardiola is keen to avoid showing his hand before the Champions League final. Or perhaps he wants to trial a back three against Chelsea today. They could easily match up with them.
Chelsea team and subs: Five changes, Billy Gilmour starts
Very attacking wing-backs with Reece James and Marcos Alsono starting.
Man City team and subs: Plenty of changes
Looks like it could be a 3-5-2 with Aguero and Jesus up top. Dias, Laporte and Ake all start.
The team bus arriving
Will City be crowned champions tonight?
Put the champagne on ice, Manchester City are three points away from being crowned Premier League champions for the fifth time but Champions League final opponents Chelsea stand in their way.
Both teams produced hugely impressive performances in Europe this week to vanquish PSG and Real Madrid. Despite the galaxy of attacking stars at Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel's disposal, it was the aggression and rigour of their defensive work that stood out. It will be interesting to see if we see any tactical shenanigans today, as both coaches try to avoid giving too much away before the final in Istanbul (as things stand) later this month.
Chelsea have the confidence of knowing they beat City at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final last month. They defended resolutely and looked to expose City with the pace of Werner on the counter-attack. City were off colour that day and will need to shift the ball at a better tempo this evening. Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic were substitutes against Real Madrid and could get starts today.
Guardiola has preferred to use a pair of false nines in these big games this season, with Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in these roles against PSG. Without the ball, City's players filed back into a narrow 4-4-2 and defended as a compact unit. It was really quite un-Guardiola like, but just another example of how he has adapted to this strange season. Three points and they will be champions for the third time in four years under Guardiola.
City's brilliant manager said: “It’s curious to say this because this year we’ve had lockdown and people are not able to do what they want to do. All the backroom staff have done incredibly well and that’s why we could rotate a lot of players and that helps. It’s a big compliment to them.”
Full team news on the way shortly.