Chelsea’s trip to Manchester City was set to be a huge one, with third meeting fourth at the Etihad. Just one point separated the royal blues and sky blues going into Saturday’s game, as both looked to continue their pursuit of runaway leaders Liverpool.
Moving four points clear of City was one of many key motives for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, along with breaking a 30 year-old club record to earn eight consecutive away wins in all competitions. It was also a matter of revenge for the Blues, who were thrashed 6-0 in the same fixture last season.
Lampard’s team selection was encouraging, with Jorginho returning from suspension to make up a robust midfield trio alongside N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić. César Azpilicueta returned to the starting eleven for Reece James, while Mason Mount was given a much-needed rest.
Chelsea began the game in excellent fashion, looking the stronger team in the opening 20 minutes. They saw much more of the ball and capitalised on it, with 53.3% the highest possession ever recorded against a Pep Guardiola side in the top-flight. The Blues moved the ball well and were attacking brilliantly, showing great threat in the final third. They got just what they deserved in the 21st minute, as Kovačić’s delightful pass was brought down by Kanté, who coolly slotted it past Ederson to put Chelsea ahead.
The visitors were ahead at the Etihad, where Manchester City had lost just one game all season. It looked like the Blues could double their advantage and take firm control of the game, but out of nothing City equalised, through former Blue Kevin De Bruyne of all players.
De Bruyne’s strike was an unfortunate one to concede, as the loose ball kindly fell to him before a big deflection took the ball beyond Kepa Arrizabalaga. Chelsea were shell-shocked by the equaliser and didn’t look the same, as the momentum completely shifted over to the defending champions.
Before they knew it, Chelsea were behind. A moment of magic from Riyad Mahrez gave City the lead, but it was concerning to see how easily the back four was cut open and infiltrated by the dazzling Algerian.
Chelsea never recovered from losing their lead within that eight-minute period, and while they continued to attack well, they didn’t look the same. Their possession and excellent chances in the final third amounted to nothing, as the Blues fell to their first defeat in two months.
Lampard’s side know that they could’ve got something from that game, but it was another case of playing in periods. Chelsea dominated and played brilliantly in the first 25 minutes, which is when they got their only goal of the game and looked the better, stronger team.
Yet as the half hour mark approached, they lost energy and concentration, allowing Manchester City to come back and win the game in a mere matter of minutes. This 25-minute period at the start of the game is no new phenomena for Lampard’s Chelsea, having seen the same story countless times this season.
The draw with Leicester in August and the Carabao Cup defeat to Manchester United last month are the most notable examples, where the Blues were on top for the first quarter then capitulated and failed to win. The Leicester result saw two points dropped on home soil, while the latter cost Chelsea a quarter-final place.
Chelsea need to learn to maintain the focus, drive and quality shown in the opening 25 minutes to win games, but without that they cannot compete with the best of the best. No wins against the big six (and Leicester) gives the sufficient evidence for this, and if Chelsea can’t learn to do this soon, it will cost them come the end of the season.
In terms of players, Kanté and Willian had decent games in attack. The Frenchman marked his 150th Chelsea appearance with a typical hard-working performance, while the latter was key going forward and had a number of excellent passes throughout the game.
Jorginho didn’t have his best game, and while he wasn’t awful a number of stray passes was very unlike the midfield maestro. Contrastingly, Kovačić was nothing short of excellent again, with an unrivalled passing accuracy and a beautiful assist.
Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has already received some harsh criticism for his performance on Saturday, lambasted for his distribution and effort when saving shots. Although it wasn’t the perfect display from the Spaniard, it is baffling to see the level of disapproval coming his way.
Arrizabalaga remains one of Chelsea’s best players, and his presence and ability in goal is one of the most essential assets in Lampard’s setup. Without Kepa, Chelsea would not be in the top four, and many need to learn to appreciate him and see how crucial he is to getting results and ultimately silverware.
In my review of the Sheffield United draw back in August, I used a phrase to sum up the game. Three months later, it is as relevant as ever:
“You can sum up the game in seven words: good going forward, awful at the back.”
Taken from my 90min match report
Quotes from Chelsea FC (via 90min)
Lampard on expectations: “Coming into the game, our recent form and how we’re developing quickly, I wanted to come here and be brave, to compete, to be brave on and off the ball. In the first half you saw all of that from us.”
Lampard on finer details: “We have lost today with a very good performance. It’s moments in the boxes. That can be why you win it or why you don’t. These teams, Liverpool and [Manchester] City, have been getting results for a long time because they work together, they work hard, and those finer details they maybe get right.”
Chelsea don’t have long to recover from Saturday’s defeat, as they are on the road again next Wednesday with a trip to Valencia in the Champions League. The Blues return to the Bridge for a London derby next Saturday, with West Ham the visitors to SW6.
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