Manchester City’s crowning as Premier League champions has been postponed for now at least after Marcos Alonso’s late strike earned Chelsea a 2-1 win at the Etihad Stadium that propelled Thomas Tuchel’s side to third in the table.
Raheem Sterling’s opener late in the first half seemed to have teed Pep Guardiola’s side up to formally retain the trophy they ceded to Liverpool last season but the Blues proved to be a match for a much-changed City in a clash that suggests the Champions League final next month could be won by either side.
An absorbing first half low on chances but high on tactical intrigue burst into life just before the interval when Andreas Christensen misjudged a bouncing ball — injuring himself in the process — allowing Gabriel Jesus to burst in behind and square for Sterling to tap into an empty net via the poor touch of Sergio Aguero. It was not the only time the Argentine fluffed his lines in pursuit of the goal that would have drawn him equal with Wayne Rooney for the most scored in the colors of one Premier League club.
Moments after Sterling’s opener Billy Gilmour brought down Jesus in the box, handing Aguero the chance to double City’s advantage. A Panenka penalty straight down the middle was comfortably saved by Edouard Mendy in the Chelsea goal.
The visitors were much improved in the second half and got their reward when Hakim Ziyech struck low from outside the box, an effort too powerful for Ederson to do more than parry the ball into the bottom corner. Chelsea had the better of the game’s closing stages and had the ball in the net through substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi only for VAR to intervene.
Chelsea kept finding joy down the right and the pressure told in the second minute of added time when Timo Werner’s low cutback found Alonso to skew a shot past Ederson. Though defeat will only postpone City’s inevitable crowning as Premier League champions it could prove to be precious for the Blues, who moved up to third and now seem well-placed to qualify for the Champions League even if they do not win the final.
Aguero’s frustrating farewell
Even now as they find themselves champions again this was a familiar performance from City, a match where they were significantly more profligate than the wealth of attacking talent suggested they ought to be. Aguero has been the one man who has insured this team against such profligacy, particularly against a Chelsea side who used to have nightmares about him, but injuries have hampered him in the past two years. He is not the force he once was.
It was not just the missed penalty. Even when they scored they made a meal out of it, Aguero’s heavy touch after Jesus squared for him meaning Sterling had no choice but to poke the ball in off the striker’s feet.
The harsh reality of today’s game is you could see why City are moving on from one of their greatest players even if he will probably never try a chipped penalty again. Those injuries have hampered his movement and ability to stretch in behind the last man whilst his contributions to the build-up play were at best infrequent. No home player had fewer touches than Aguero in his time on the pitch and aside from his penalty his sole shot came from 32 yards out.
City should give Aguero further chances to embellish his legacy over the remainder of this Premier League season but it is still somewhat disappointing to see one of the English game’s great imports end his time with this club in such muted fashion.
Managers keep Champions League final plans close to their chest
It said everything about the confusion that Guardiola’s side sowed when it was announced an hour before kick-off that the BBC had the champions to be lining up in a 3-3-3-1 with Sergio Aguero on the left side of a triumvirate of defensive midfielders, one of nine players to come into the side that won against Paris Saint-Germain in midweek.
That may not have been the system but it was not entirely clear exactly what City were doing. On occasion it looked like a 5-1-4 with Rodri asked to hold the fort in midfield on his own, at other times one of Ferran Torres or Raheem Sterling might shift into the engine room. Their press was aggressive in the extreme and there was a clear focus on attacking the left flank where Benjamin Mendy functioned as a winger rather than anything approximating a wing-back.
Tuchel was no less reluctant to treat this as a Champions League dress rehearsal, saying before kick-off “I don’t like the many subjects around this game so much. There was the semi-final, now there’s the Champions League final coming up and they can be champions and we have some changes. It’s too many subjects. I don’t like it too much.”
For the German the system did not change but you suspect that many of the personnel will for the final next month, whether it is in Istanbul or Aston. Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell will surely start, Billy Gilmour and Marcos Alonso probably won’t.
That Guardiola opted for such a change in approach would suggest that he was not only keeping his most likely plan for the final in his back pocket but equally experimenting to see how Chelsea reacted to different looks from City. After all Tuchel’s three man defense negated the strikerless Citizens rather effectively in the FA Cup semi-final; on this occasion Aguero and Jesus often kept their opponents from getting Werner the quick ball he needed.
Doubtless both managers will adapt their plans further in light of what they have learned today, setting the stage for an intriguing tactical battle later this month.
Hakim Ziyech: No player on either side completed more take-ons than the Moroccan international, who also completed 12 of 15 passes in the final. As the game wore on Ziyech grew more effective before scoring an excellently struck equaliser. Rating: 8
Gabriel Jesus: A whirlwind of energy and aggression in the press, this felt like a game where Jesus was really pushing for a starting spot in Guardiola’s strongest side, not just for the run-in but in seasons to come. He did his cause no harm today. Rating: 7
Reece James: Increasingly he looks like he might be one the best crossers of the ball among the Premier League’s defenders, such is the variety of deliveries James can put in. It took excellent defending from Aymeric Laporte and profligacy from Werner to deny him an assist. Rating: 7