LONDON: Manchester City proved the value of their deep squad by stepping their pursuit of Liverpool with an impressive 3-1 victory away to fast-fading Chelsea. City were missing eight players through Covid-19 and injury but revived the stylish confident football of their title wins under Pep Guardiola in 2018 and 2019.
Suddenly they are looking hungry again, four points behind Jurgen Klopp’s men but with one game in hand. Ilkay Gundogan scored the first goal and was outstanding in midfield in support of England forward Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne. Chelsea, by contrast, are now seven points off the pace and have played a game more than Liverpool.
The staging of the match remained uncertain until only a few hours before kickoff amid increasing concern over both the number of positive tests at Premier League clubs and the reckless behaviour of a number of players at new year.
Social media pictures showed Tottenham’s Sergio Reguilon, Giovani Lo Celso and Érik Lamela plus the West Ham midfielder Manuel Lanzini breaching Covid-19 restrictions by attending a Christmas party together and with other family members. Government guidelines bar anyone in London and the south-east of England from mixing with anyone outside their household at Christmas.
Spurs will fine the trio. Mourinho was particularly upset by Reguilon’s involvement. The 24-year-old leftback lives alone so Mourinho had sent him a joint of Portuguese pork meat for Christmas Day.
Mourinho said: “I gave it to him because I was told he was going to spend Christmas on his own. But he was not alone, as you have seen, and the club feel disappointed because we give the players all the education, all the conditions. We’re not happy. it was a negative surprise for us.”
A club statement said: “We strongly condemn this particularly as we know the sacrifices everybody around the country made to stay safe over the festive period. The rules are clear, there are no exceptions.” Lamela and Lanzini have both issued apologies.
Fulham’s match at Burnley was the fourth Premier match in a month to be postponed because of a Covid outbreak. The west London club’s match at Tottenham last Wednesday had also been called off.
The Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic spent New Year’s Eve at the house of fellow Serbian Luka Milivojevic, the Crystal Palace captain. Palace manager Roy Hodgson said: “That’s a clear breach of the rules. We condemn it, apologise for it and expect him to do so as well.”
Clubs in all divisions have been warned that any clubs responsible for Covid match call-offs risk forfeiting their matches in the FA Cup third round next weekend.
The Premier League has not undertaken formal discussions about a two-week ‘circuit breaker’. Most managers are opposed to the concept even though this might mean fielding weakened teams. City’s Pep Guardiola, ahead of facing Chelsea, had said: “We have a good enough squad to compete against a tough opponent in Chelsea. Five players are not here and two backroom staff but we have the rest.”
Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said: “We are trying to keep our spirits up, as much as is possible.”
City had eight players unavailable at Stamford Bridge.
Ederson, Ferran Torres, Kyle Walker, Gabriel Jesus, Tommy Doyle and Eric Garcia were all isolated with Covid though Garcia was injured anyway. Also absent through injury were Nathan Ake and Aymeric Laporte. However, with the exception of debutant American Zack Steffen in goal, this was still a powerful line-up.
Chelsea were confident of capitalising on the City disturbance. Timo Werner, without a goal in his last 11 games in all competitions, had been given special extra shooting practice during the week but their problems turned out to be in midfield and defence.
Kevin de Bruyne was narrowly wide before City struck twice between the 18th and 21st minutes. Phil Foden provided the assist for the super first by Gundogan and then scored the second goal himself. This was vintage Manchester City. De Bruyne scored from open play for the first time this season in the 35th minute after N’Golo Kante gave away possession deep in the City half. Raheem Sterling raced away from halfway to shoot against a post and De Bruyne converted the rebound.
The second half saw City continue in command even though Chelsea enjoyed more of the possession (56.9pc to 43.1pc). Mateo Kovacic produced a rare Chelsea goal effort before manager Frank Lampard brought on youngsters Callum Huson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour to try to chase the game.
Chelsea’s attack remained anonymous up against the highly effective City central defensive pairing of Ruben Dias and John Stones until Hudson-Odoi scored a consolation goal in stoppage time.