Roar of approval: Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring the winning goal for Manchester City.
There are mistakes in the history of certain clubs and then there is Chelsea’s disastrous decision to sell Kevin De Bruyne, among the few players in the world who can determine the outcome of a game with a moment of brilliance, and a man who seems destined to haunt them over and again.
De Bruyne was the match-winner for Manchester City in this peak of the Premier League showdown, a collision between two of the best teams in the competition although, on this day, it was only really the visitors who showed up. They deserved their victory, dominating the game up until the moment that De Bruyne slammed a left-foot shot past Thibaut Courtois to win the game for a City side who had come forward relentlessly for most of the match.
The Belgium international was the pick of a fine City team and in the fleeting moments in which he took a return pass from Gabriel Jesus and advanced into a pocket of space on the edge of the Chelsea area, the outcome seemed inevitable. City finally had their big gun in range of the target and the level at which De Bruyne has now reached means that he rarely misses.
Pep Guardiola’s team sit top of the league, a goal better off than Manchester United who also have 19 points, and have now seen off Chelsea in one of the most demanding fixtures of the season, even without the recently injured Sergio Aguero. Their manager was buoy- ant afterwards, cheerfully discussing everything from Fabian Delph’s renaissance to the Catalan independence referendum, forever “so, so happy” but now with much greater justification.
City are playing according to the Guardiola masterplan, a team who insist on pressing their opponents high up the pitch and, according to their manager, setting out their stall from the first moment that, in his words, “these guys have come here to win”.
He promised to prosecute the same approach at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and the Emirates with the confidence now high in the players that this can work for them. In Guardiola’s words it is “suicide by stupid guys” to play high up the pitch without pressing the ball, and he had the players willing to do it in his hard-running front three. To then go on to win you need footballers as gifted as De Bruyne and David Silva, but then credit also goes to the unflinching Fernandinho in midfield and Delph, who had a very good game at left-back.
By contrast Chelsea were a disappointment, especially their own matchwinner-in-chief Eden Hazard, starting his first league game of the season but substituted before the end.
His replacement, Pedro, immediately looked a more vibrant option and there was a much better last 20 minutes for the home side, with City finally denied the right to run the show.
Chelsea lost Alvaro Morata to injury with just 34 minutes on the clock, the striker who had six goals in six league games reporting a hamstring problem that he did not wish to make worse. He was replaced by Willian, who formed a partnership with Hazard that made few inroads and only at the end, when Conte switched to 3-4-3 did Chelsea push their visitors back. They might have pinched an equaliser but they certainly would not have deserved one.
It is hard not to ask afresh the question as to how De Bruyne, now arguably the league’s pre-eminent footballer, and certainly its best midfielder on current form, was finally allowed to leave Stamford Bridge in August 2014 for a mere £18million.
That was a different Chelsea manager who was having different arguments over different players, but it is a decision that continues to cost Chelsea. Conte sidestepped that particular thicket of thorns, instead preferring just to say that he thought his players had given their very best, although if that is their best then it will not be enough to ensure they retain the title.
It was hard to think of a single major chance they created when they were in need of the equaliser and the system that reaped such rewards last season was strangely ineffective with Victor Moses on the bench. Conte adjusted his usual 3-4-3 formation to accommodate a five-man midfield in which Cesc Fabregas, Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante all featured, yet they seemed just to fall ever deeper in face of the onslaught. By the end of the first half they had made just over a third of the passes that City had, and generally looked like an away team trying to counter-attack.
There were a couple of moments when Hazard slowed to a standstill and hovered a foot over the ball, promising a defence-splitting dash forward, but he never quite delivered. Before he was replaced, he only really had a sight of goal after the hour when a free-kick he had won was clipped left to him and he hit a shot from a difficult angle that Ederson blocked.
At the other end, Marcos Alonso, one of Chelsea’s better performers, got a block on a David Silva shot before City scored a minute later. The move, starting with Nicolas Otamendi and going from De Bruyne to Jesus and back again, before the Belgian set the crosshairs and swept the ball past Courtois.
City should have had another with six minutes left when Jesus caught the ball true on the left side of the area and Antonio Rudiger set his neck muscles in time to head the shot out of the goalmouth. Although Chelsea raised their game at the end it was hard to think of a single chance that was created other than an Andreas Christensen header over the bar late on when it was at last City’s turn to dig in and keep their shape.
On the touchline, as the pressure increased in the closing stages, Guardiola demanded even that his players chest Chelsea’s crosses into the area rather than head them away and invite more pressure. Yet right to the end they remained steadfast in their belief that the ball must be passed and not lumped out of defence. The City manager is not easily pleased and his mood afterwards suggested that this team are close to the side he has always envisaged.
Match-winner: Kevin de Bruyne scores the only goal of the game for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge yesterday