Tuesday, January 25, 2022

De Bruyne’s grandiose winner sinks Chelsea as City edge closer to the title

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A goal that can win any game and that almost certainly won the 2021-22 Premier League title. Kevin De Bruyne’s superb strike was a moment that reflected Manchester City’s dominance appropriately, putting the holders 13 points clear of Chelsea after that 1-0 win. As if to also emphasize that part of this lead is due to the rivals’ own weaknesses, Kepa Arrizabalaga could have done more for the goal.

That shouldn’t take away from De Bruyne’s strike or City’s quality. As with the big deficit at the top of the table and despite the narrow win, they were so much better than Chelsea.

Other numbers might say that better than 1-0. City are now on course for 97 points and have won 12 straight games, giving Guardiola credit for four of the nine longest winning streaks in Premier League history.

His side, to quote the Catalan himself, have ‘destroyed’ the league. Here they just squeezed the life out of the European champion before De Bruyne let go.

It was often masterful, if occasionally a little mundane for what could theoretically have been billed as a “title showdown.”

However, that’s what City have done to this league. Their absolute command of the ball took away any competitive tension from the top of the league and so many games. That shouldn’t acquit Chelsea though. They have rightly been billed as City’s main challengers but have fallen far short of that. They are now in action for 74 points themselves and seemed to have lost the little momentum they had built up over the last few games. Again, they just had to line up City submissively.

The course of the game was therefore predictable and subsequently quite tiring over long stretches. It was mainly City who had the ball and tried to force errors against Chelsea who didn’t have the ball and were waiting for errors.

A persistent lack of chemistry in individual areas of these otherwise overfunded teams, which initially prevented them from making up for those mistakes when they came.

Of course, City’s high line meant they gave up space a few times, but it’s clear that Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech don’t really get along just yet. Christian Pulisic, meanwhile, appeared completely isolated, as if he was as disconnected from the game as possible by the system. That meant Chelsea’s breaks went through Ziyech and Lukaku, but there were more than a few moments when things just didn’t feel right between them. Either the run was wrong or the pass was wrong.

In the first big moment of the game, Lukaku tried to feed the playmaker inside, only for his pass to be botched and Ziyech to be sidelined in any case. Moments later, Ziyech tried to feed the Belgian, only to play a through ball that looked more like a back pass to Ederson.

Chelsea obviously tried to play on the counterattack, so it was all the more surprising that Timo Werner wasn’t in the starting XI. After Ziyech thwarted another counterattack in the second half, Tuchel sent Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi on.

That came as De Bruyne took advantage of the space Chelsea had left behind.

It was very much a case of City’s best player showing them how it was done. The directness was almost as impressive as the divine nature of the finish.

By then it was as if Guardiola’s side had tried too consciously to work on it – not least Jack Grealish.

There’s little doubt that the England international has the talent to be hugely productive once his manager’s distinctive approach finally wears off for him, but for now it means all individuality and vivacity are gone from his game.

He’s not exactly a player on a confidence wave.

When Chelsea finally made a rare mistake in the first half and the otherwise-polished Mateo Kovacic gifted the ball to Grealish, he was presented with the kind of opportunity he would have easily finished at Aston Villa.

Instead, he hit him as if almost rushing him, although Kepa forced him to make a decision.

The keeper wasn’t quite as commanding with De Bruyne’s goal, although it was all about the majesty of the finish.

Until then, City had always been a little closer to goal without necessarily looking at a goal. They didn’t create many chances from the open game.

So De Bruyne decided to go remote.

The midfielder picked up the ball right in the Chelsea half and charged forward before flicking the ball past Kepa and into the corner.

The fact that he just jumped over a midfielder as dominant as Kante underlined the point and added an additional quality attribute to the goal.

That’s the quality of the team.

They are now certainly heading for their eighth title in history, with four of them coming under Guardiola in half a decade.

That says it all. De Bruyne’s goal pretty much decided everything.

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