Anything could have happened heading into this game and, by the end of it, Manchester City suffered just about as much as they possibly could have.
Chelsea were always going to provide a huge test of City’s credentials and so it proved as Antonio Conte’s men took full advantage of the weaknesses in Pep Guardiola’s newest project.
By the end it had completely unravelled for the home side at the Etihad Stadium.
This was a fine game, with both teams showing why they will challenge for the title this season. City, though defeated, played well, created plenty of chances and could certainly have taken something from this game. But the fact they did not suggests deeper problems that could prevent them finishing top of the pile come May.
Before the analysis, a word on the referee. Anthony Taylor should have sent off David Luiz for a cynical block on Sergio Aguero as he raced through on goal in the first half. Taylor seemed to be reaching for his red card but looked at his linesman and changed his mind completely. He did even less to endear himself to the home crowd when he turned down a penalty shout when Ilkay Gundogan was fouled in the box. There was a string of other poor decisions, for both sides, to support the idea that the man in the middle had a day to forget.
Not that he could have done much else other than send off Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho right at the end as City lost the plot.
But it should never have got to that stage. They did get lucky that Gary Cahill deflected Jesus Navas’ cross into his own net, but it was no less than the hosts deserved after recovering from a subdued opening 20 minutes to dominate the game.
They came out after the break in search of a second goal and they went close on several occasions. Leroy Sane showed a flash of his supreme talent with a blistering run through the middle and lay-off to Kevin De Bruyne, but the Belgian’s shot was saved by Thibaut Courtois. Aguero also seized on some hesitancy between Cahill and Courtois but rushed his shot after rounding the keeper and another chance went begging. The clearest opportunity of all came when De Bruyne slid in to meet Navas’ fine low cross at full stretch but could only send the ball onto the crossbar. Guardiola sunk to his knees, as if he knew what was coming.
Minutes later Cesc Fabregas pinged a delightful long ball towards Costa and Nicolas Otamendi. The Chelsea striker outmuscled the Argentine, controlled the ball brilliantly and finished past Claudio Bravo. It was a brilliant goal but a sucker punch.
Aguero then went through on goal looking to hand his side the advantage again, but took his time trying to out-wit Courtois before being denied by the big Belgian.
Then Gundogan danced through the Chelsea defence to the by-line, but his cut-back was not met by any team-mates. Sixty seconds later the ball was in the net, but at the other end. Otamendi committed himself, Costa turned, played Willian in beyond the stranded Aleksandar Kolarov and John Stones, and the Brazilian made no mistake, aided by Bravo’s meagre attempts to maintain parity.
Guardiola could not believe it and turned to the fans behind his bench to urge them into action. He knew his City side would need picking up off the canvas: they had not deserved to be behind.
Yaya Toure came on for Gundogan and Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Stones as Guardiola threw everything at it, but they could not recover. Worse, they conceded again. A long ball over the top set Eden Hazard away and he finished calmly.
The 3-1 scoreline is emphatic but does a disservice to the difference in quality between the two sides. What it does highlight, though, is City’s weaknesses.
Guardiola wanted two centre-backs and some new full-backs in the summer but got Stones and nobody else. The Catalan does not like being asked about his defence and he insists they are playing well, but he had doubts about Otamendi in the summer and little will have happened between then and now to change that.
At key times he made poor decisions and was outdone by Costa. Kolarov started the season in fine form but those performances are a distant memory now. Bravo is unfairly maligned and he showed his best footwork here but he could have done much better for Willian’s goal.
Guardiola has also often cited his side’s failure to kill off games and today was no different. But, while the previous three matches have produced frustrating draws, this was a damaging defeat.
The frustration was evident. Aguero was rightly sent off for levelling Luiz in injury time and will now serve a four-match ban, having served a retrospective suspension earlier this season. He will miss the Arsenal game in a fortnight’s time. Fernandinho was also sent off for pushing Fabregas into the crowd, meaning the Brazilian, one of Guardiola’s most influential players, will not be available for the next three games.
It could have all been so different for City had they taken their chances but, lamentably for Guardiola and his staff, it was the same old story. Today, though, it has really cost them. Aguero had another good game, a sign of his continued improvement, but he will now miss most of the Christmas period.
City should never have been in this position, but this was about as damaging a defeat as you can get.