There was a brief period of quiet before the game began, although it may have gone unnoticed. These days, matchdays at Stamford Bridge bring a mix of intrigue and uneasiness, similar to the feeling of entering a restaurant with a low rating on Google Maps. It’s difficult to predict what will happen anymore. The usual standards of excellence no longer seem relevant. What defines success in the constantly changing landscape of Chelsea post-Abramovich? Is it finishing in the top four? Demonstrating stylistic improvement? Keeping the same starting lineup?
It was tempting to say that the 104 minutes of football had little impact: despite the excitement and unexpected turns, the ricochets and frenzied counterattacks, and the intense 20-yard tackles in the pouring rain. We were aware that Chelsea excels when given room to sprint, but struggles with defending their own penalty area. They have the ability to deliver both brilliant and disastrous moments, and as you scan your ticket, you cannot predict which one will prevail.
The game was an unconventional one, with both teams taking turns leading and then neither having the upper hand. Despite the intensity, it was still a game that you couldn’t help but be captivated by, even as it took your breath away. However, by the end, there was a noticeable change, especially for Chelsea. Perhaps it was due to Mauricio Pochettino’s outburst at the fourth official as the final whistle blew. His eyes were wide and full of energy, his hair disheveled and wet, as though he had missed the team bus and had to swim the last two miles. Pochettino has always tried to present himself as the composed figure in charge of this chaotic football club, but here, he seemed to be experiencing emotions once again.
This may have been the moment when Chelsea began to experience emotions once more. After their bizarre victory over Tottenham on Monday, they went into their match against the champions with determination and direction, qualities that have been scarce for them this season. The game started off quietly and eerily, but by the end, the crowd was on their feet and the stadium was in an uproar over the refereeing decisions. Despite Manchester City’s attempts to slow down the game, Chelsea continued to push forward with speed and ambition, constantly breaking through their opponent’s defenses.
The team accomplished this feat by doing something that very few teams are brave enough to do against City. Many teams choose to play defensively, packing numbers behind the ball and relying on counterattacks. However, Chelsea had faith in their abilities to win one-on-one battles, fully engaging in physical clashes and challenges. They repeatedly attempted to dribble past the strongest defense in Europe. Reece James was able to effectively handle Jérémy Doku on the right side, leading to Pep Guardiola substituting him out. Enzo Fernández, despite his impressive ball skills, did an excellent job in neutralizing the threat of his international teammate Julián Álvarez. Marc Cucurella managed to hold his own against Phil Foden, even while playing with a yellow card for almost 80 minutes.
Raheem Sterling was a notable player in Chelsea. However, during his time there, he seemed to lack motivation and only made minimal contributions to the team. He has since been dropped from the England squad and his role as penalty taker has been given to Cole Palmer. While he would occasionally score a goal against smaller teams, he seemed to be lacking in drive. Recently, however, it appears that his passion for the game has reignited and he showcased this in a standout performance.
Could it have been because it was his former team? Most likely not. However, it may not have been a mere coincidence that the two players who made the difference for City in this match were familiar with Guardiola’s tactics. As Sterling took on Kyle Walker, pulling him inwards, Palmer seamlessly maneuvered into the open areas left behind, skillfully navigating through spaces and using the sidestep technique often associated with Guardiola’s style of play. It was Palmer who played a crucial role in setting up Sterling’s first goal for Chelsea against a top-half club in the first half, and it was Sterling who drew the penalty in injury time that Palmer successfully converted.
Sometimes, Chelsea would feel remorse over their choice to make the game a physical battle. Cucurella’s mistake led to a penalty for City when he allowed Haaland to outmaneuver him, leaving him with no good options. The defense during the second phase for Akanji’s goal was chaotic. Additionally, Caicedo’s decision to challenge Haaland for the ball and lose put City in a better position to score their third goal. These types of mistakes can give opposing teams an opportunity to score.
The issue was not in the small details, but in the overall design. This was Chelsea’s true potential being unleashed as an aggressive team, pushing the boundaries and exciting the crowds. The stadium of Stamford Bridge became a stronghold, with the fans finally having faith in what they were witnessing and reacting accordingly. What level of excellence should Chelsea hold themselves to now? This match provided an answer in its exhilarating manner.