Few expected Chelsea to walk into the Etihad Stadium fifteen months ago and emerge with not only three goals, but three points and the win that would prove a season-defining accomplishment even among a season full of many other notable achievements. It’s a win that remains City’s only home defeat in the last two years, the impact of which is still being felt strongly to this day.
For one thing, the manner of our 3-1 victory not only certified our title credentials then, but could prove instructive in how Conte might approach today’s rematch, despite City since making the necessary upgrades to address the squad’s shortcomings that day — like sharks, teams must swim (change, and improve) constantly to survive at the top level — though Chelsea have not been able to reach similar heights consistently since.
For another, Sergio Agüero’s assault on David Luiz was the beginning of the end of Chelsea’s curly haired cult hero, from “best defender in the world” to not even making the bench less than a year later.
On December 4, 2016, the first half went exactly how we might envision today’s re-match going. Chelsea defended deep, City dominated and had all the ball. With better finishing, especially by Sergio Agüero, they would have gone into the break with a comfortable lead. Instead it was just 1-0, and that was thanks to Gary Cahill clipping a Jesús Navas cross into his own net in the 45th minute.
Cahill was devastated.
But courage! He’d atone for his mistake in the early minutes of the second half, which went exactly how we hope today’s match will go. Chelsea were forced to open up, got a massive slice of luck, and, crucially, took clinical advantage of the few opportunities given.
Within eleven minutes of the restart Courtois had saved from an open De Bruyne on his near post, Cahill blocked an Agüero shot with the open net behind him (atonement!) and De Bruyne inexplicably hit the crossbar after Navas found him clear on the far post. Arguably the biggest miss of any Chelsea match last seaosn.
Buoyed by that unlikely relief, a pattern emerged which Chelsea rode to victory. Three times the Blues managed to find the yawning acres of space which City left open with their high press.
First, a gorgeous pass from Cesc inside his own half to Costa, who dominated Otamendi 1-v-1 to score a classic, physical Costa goal.
Then Costa turned provider, springing Willian free who took advantage some poor goalkeeping of no-longer first-choice Claudio Bravo to give Chelsea the lead.
The icing on the cake came in the 89th minute, this time Marcos Alonso finding Eden Hazard gratefully sprinting into all that open grass.
All three goals came from exploiting the space that City willingly cede to the team capable of exploiting it.
When Antonio Conte talked on Friday about balancing attack with defense, he might as well have been referring to the two halves of last season’s epic match.
“When you play this type of game, when you play against this team who have showed to be very strong, you must have a plan in your mind to stop them with a tactical plan, otherwise you risk to lose in a bad way.
“The most important things in every game are to have a tactical plan defensively and offensively. In my mind, if you want to win, you must have a great balance in every moment of the game.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard
Similar comments about ‘balance’ resulted in Eden Hazard playing center forward against Barcelona, with Pedro and Willian flanking him. But last year, Hazard (and Pedro) played alongside an actual center forward in Costa, who was capable of bullying City’s center backs. We might not have Costa anymore, but maybe Giroud or Morata are up for that job?
Speaking of players no longer making an impact, he other big repercussion from that long-ago game is how it changed our back line. Going into City, David Luiz was a player reborn. He was playing with greater discipline than he’d ever consistently shown before, he was fast and he was physical. Conte was moulding him into the best in the world.
And then this happened.
Luiz’s right knee was never the same the rest of the season. He played with it heavily bandaged. His quality suffered visibly.
In the summer Chelsea brought back promising academy product Andreas Christensen from his loan to Borussia Monchengladbach. When Luiz’s knee injury flared up again in December, Christensen took his job at the heart of Chelsea’s defence.
“He’s got a big inflammation in his knee and we’re trying to solve this issue with the doctors, but I don’t know when he is able to come back with us, the medical department is trying to solve this.
“He’s working apart, the last days he was working in the swimming-pool, today he was on the pitch to run but he could do that very slowly.
“Every player is frustrated when he doesn’t play, especially when you got an injury, every player wants to take part to training sessions, they want the coach to have issues for his choices.
“Of course it’s frustrating because you cannot be in contention for the competition.”
-Antonio Conte, December, 2017
But remember, kids, Sergio Agüero is just “not that type of player”.
As fifteen months ago, few expect Chelsea to walk into the Etihad stadium today and collect all three points, or any points for that matter.
It can be done.