Kante and Luiz pierce City’s aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - By Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER at Stam­ford Bridge

The Pre­mier League may feel a dif­fer­ent place this morn­ing for some of the ri­vals of Manch­ester City, no longer un­de­feated, no longer even top of the ta­ble and the aura of Pep Guardi­ola as the un­touch­able gen­eral of an im­pla­ca­ble force a lit­tle less for­bid­ding than it once was.

The cham­pi­ons beaten at last, 16 games in and Christ­mas’s pun­ish­ing sched­ule on its way, Guardi­ola on the touch­line wag­ging a fin­ger at the fourth of­fi­cial and that grey woollen jacket in­ad­e­quate in the cold win­ter rain.

Strange how per­cep­tions can change so swiftly, and while City might still go on to crush all op­po­si­tion, this was an in­trigu­ing blue­print for how they might be de­feated – de­feated by a team that had less pos­ses­sion, fewer shots and one cor­ner to the away side’s 13.

Af­ter­wards Guardi­ola was gen­er­ous about Mau­r­izio Sarri’s vic­tory, his first over his friend in four at­tempts, but the Cata­lan was bullish about his own side. This was how Guardi­ola says he likes to lose, if in­deed he has to lose, on the front foot and in con­trol of the ball al­though it never felt quite like that af­ter the break. They dom­i­nated the first half and then had to wres­tle back con- trol of the sec­ond but in the ab­sence of Ser­gio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne the goal threat was lack­ing.

Liver­pool are top of the league by a sin­gle point and now, af­ter vic­tory over Bournemouth, are the only un­de­feated team left in the Pre­mier League. Their meeting with City at the Eti­had on Jan 3 is shap­ing up to be an epic, and if the eight-part Ama­zon Prime ha­giog­ra­phy of the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s ti­tle-win­ning cam­paign taught us one thing, it was that Guardi­ola loves a speech about over­com­ing ad­ver­sity.

“A joy” was how he de­scribed manag­ing his team af­ter this de­feat. It did not look that way as he com­plained to the fourth of­fi­cial about the cor­ner that led to David Luiz’s sec­ond de­ci­sive goal, but this is Guardi­ola’s mantra – that what­ever the out­come, no one must de­vi­ate from the process.

“Af­ter all we have done last sea­son every­body wants to beat us,” he said, “we played with in­cred­i­ble per­son­al­ity. We didn’t de­fend, we stayed high, re­gained a lot of balls. We at­tacked, we cre­ated enough chances to score one or two in the first half. Un­for­tu­nately it didn’t hap­pen.”

His team cer­tainly did con­trol the first half, and it barely seemed cred­i­ble when N’Golo Kante gave Chelsea the lead on 45 min­utes from a tear­away break that fi­nally saw Eden Haz­ard pick out the run of the French mid­fielder in the box. “We’re not here to be in­vin­ci­bles,” Guardi­ola said later. “We’re here to try to be cham­pi­ons.” Later he said that the myth of in­vin­ci­bil­ity was a fal­lacy in any sport. “When peo­ple say that they’re sell­ing il­lu­sion. Part of the com­pe­ti­tion is you can lose.”

Whether Chelsea’s ap­proach will be suc­cess­fully im­i­tated by oth­ers is a ques­tion worth ask­ing given that Sarri said him­self that the first 25 min­utes did not go any­thing like he had planned. It was not hard to see the prob­lem, with Haz­ard de­ployed as a false nine and un­will­ing to do any­thing more than jog non­cha­lantly to­wards the City de­fend­ers in pos­ses­sion of the ball rather than press in the way in which Sarri had in mind.

“We had Eden for the first time in that po­si­tion and I think in the first 20, 25 min­utes we didn’t work very well in the de­fen­sive move­ment in the op­po­nent’s half,” Sarri said. A high-risk strat­egy given the roots of Haz­ard’s se­ri­ous fall­out with An­to­nio Conte last sea­son be­gan when the for­mer Chelsea man­ager picked his No10 in the same po­si­tion at the Eti­had in March. Did Haz­ard like play­ing there? “He had some prob­lems at the be­gin­ning of the match,” Sarri said, “but I think he played re­ally a very great sec­ond half.”

For now the re­sult is all that mat­ters but Haz­ard, with his fu­ture a mat­ter of de­bate, will not be pleased to hear that Sarri says there will be other times when he is re­quired to do the same. This was, none­the­less, a stun­ning win for the Stam­ford Bridge man­ager.

City dom­i­nated the first half. The home team hung on but it was not much fun for them, es­pe­cially on their left flank when Mar­cos Alonso gave the ball away of­ten and strug­gled to keep Ra­heem Ster­ling un­der con­trol.

The Kante goal it­self was not even par­tic­u­larly well fi­nessed. It started with Luiz switch­ing the play to Pe­dro, there was a poor touch from Willian, a bit of in­de­ci­sion from Alonso but when Haz­ard got on the ball in the area, time seemed to slow down. City’s de­fend­ers stood off the Bel­gian and he alone could see the run of Kante, un­marked in the box, to score. It was a hell of a way for Sarri’s team to end the half.

Haz­ard had been se­lected as a cen­tre­for­ward ahead of Olivier Giroud who was on the bench and Al­varo Mo­rata, who was not even in the squad.

Sarri fudged the Mo­rata ques­tion too, say­ing that he needed a sub­sti­tutes’ bench with mid­field­ers rather than strik­ers and to­wards the end of the game he did change his for­ma­tion, bring­ing on Ruben Lof­tus-Cheek and Ross Barkley in the wider po­si­tions. There was no place for Gabriel Je­sus in the City team ei­ther and al­though he was later sum­moned from the bench Guardi­ola also picked a for­ma­tion with a false nine, Ster­ling on this oc­ca­sion.

Did the City man­ager ex­pect to see his for­ma­tion mir­rored by his op­po­site num­ber? “Yes,” he dead­panned, “yes­ter­day I called Mau­r­izio and we de­cided to play the same way.”

Sarri’s team played much bet­ter af­ter the break and were re­warded with a sec­ond goal when Barkley won a cor­ner that Eder­son might have pre­vented from go­ing out. Guardi­ola seemed to think the set-piece should never have been given.

Be­fore Haz­ard took it, Luiz worked his way to the front post and out­jumped ev­ery­one to di­rect his header back past Eder­son, putting the fin­ish­ing touch on a pretty re­mark­able vic­tory.

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