A trip to the league leaders on Sunday heralded the beginning of City’s daunting set of fixtures that sees them face four of the top six over their next four league games.
Getting anything at Stamford Bridge is difficult under any set of circumstances. However, the return of Diego Costa for the Blues as well as the significant absences in City’s already stretched squad only added to the sense (amongst national pundits at least) that this game was a home banker. Chelsea did prevail in the end, yet it was far from a formality as Marco Silva’s team showed both spirit and glimpses of quality in their performance.
City set up in a familiar 3-5-1-1 shape, with a debut for new signing Omar Elabdellaoui at right-wing-back. Sam Clucas was the midfielder who seemed to be offering the most support to lone striker Abel Hernandez in the absence of Robert Snodgrass. Antonio Conte stuck with his tried and tested 3-4-3 system with top-scorer Diego Costa back in the team following widespread speculation about his future.
Predictably, it was Costa who had the game’s first chance after just 10 seconds, volleying a right-footed shot wide from Pedro’s knock down. Huddlestone dragged an effort harmlessly wide in City’s first attacking move of the match.
On 12 minutes Gary Cahill and Ryan Mason were involved in a sickening head collision following a Chelsea corner. Both players required immediate medical attention but it soon became apparent that Mason’s condition was much more serious. The game only got under way again after a nine minute stoppage, and the club later revealed that City’s midfielder needed emergency surgery once hospitalised due to a fractured skull.
David Meyler replaced Mason when the game eventually got back under way. Understandably both teams struggled to find their rhythm after such a long break in play, but Silva would have been pleased to see his team restrict Chelsea’s opportunities to a minimum. It was Harry Maguire who had City’s best effort of the half, forcing Courtois to make a decent save from a 25 yard shot.
As for Chelsea, they were having plenty of possession but struggling to break down a stubborn black and amber defence. Alonso’s deflected shot had to be tipped over the crossbar by Eldin Jakupovic, but City’s goalkeeper was otherwise untroubled. Curtis Davies was perhaps lucky to get away with a second yellow card after he fouled Hazard on the edge of the area.
The opening goal came in the seventh minute of added time at the end of the first half. Pressure from Chelsea eventually resulted in Costa getting on the end of Moses’ cross with a fine finish. Replays suggested that Abel Hernandez was fouled in the build-up to the goal, but the referee was unmoved and the Tigers went into the half-time break 1-0 down.
The second half began with City on top, and they should have been awarded a penalty when Alonso clearly kicked Hernandez’s heels as both players challenged for the ball. Referee Neil Swarbrick was badly placed to see the incident, but his assistant on the touchline appeared to have a good view, yet incorrectly gave a throw-in to City.
The visitors continued to show a willingness to attack in search of an equaliser. David Meyler forced a good save out of Courtois as he launched a shot from outside the area, while Dawson had a half-chance from a set piece, but he saw his left-footed volley saved at the near post. Niasse and Diomande were both introduced by Silva (the former replacing an injured Curtis Davies) as City looked to snatch an unlikely, but not undeserved, point.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. On 81 minutes Cesc Fabregas delivered a textbook set-piece from the left, with Gary Cahill on the end of it, powering in a header from no more than six yards out. This was firmly against the run of play, but as so often is the case with the ‘big teams’, they were just able to find enough to defeat their opponents.
Niasse forced another save out of Courtois late on, but otherwise the remainder of the match passed without incident and Chelsea were relieved to record a 2-0 victory. The weekend’s results leave City in 19th place, one point ahead of bottom club Sunderland, and two points behind Swansea in 17th. No doubt supporters will have one eye on transfer activity this week as the Tigers look to retain their key players while also adding a couple to the ranks.
Harry Drew (@)