Perhaps it was almost as Todd Boehly envisaged: a Chelsea game in May, the new champions given a guard of honour after securing what may prove the first of a treble, cruising to victory over fallen rivals. Except Chelsea had to form the guard of honour – in perhaps the closest they came to a coherent formation for quite some time – and Manchester City were celebrating in the sunshine.
The nouveaux riches were companion clubs for years but, since each came into extreme wealth, they have never been separated by a greater gulf. If money has talked, and one has spent largely well in recent seasons, the other spectacularly badly in the last 12 months, the consequence is that City’s fifth league title in six seasons was sealed the day before they condemned Chelsea to a first bottom-half finish since 1996.
City have the luxury of having Julian Alvarez as a second-choice striker; the rested Erling Haaland’s deluxe deputy is a World Cup winner and he extended their winning run to 12 league games. But, in a season of ignominies for Chelsea, there were more. Pep Guardiola’s team felt suddenly altered on Saturday night, City’s coronation prompting him to rest nine of the starters against Real Madrid. But his second-string side are better than the club with a £600m makeover; indeed City have more than twice as many points as Chelsea. Chelsea had lost to a severely weakened City in the FA Cup and did so again in the Premier League. Over the season, Chelsea have met City four times, lost all four and failed to score in each. Alvarez has scored against them in three competitions, whereas Chelsea have only found the net against anyone in two. Of their quartet of defeats, this may have been the most respectable. Real Madrid had conceded four at the Etihad, like Liverpool and Arsenal before them. Chelsea only let in one as City chalked up a 16th consecutive home win in 2023; indeed, incongruously, the last team to stop them on their own turf was Frank Lampard’s Everton.
But the context changed the minute Nottingham Forest beat Arsenal. This became an exhibition game for City, a chance for Guardiola to turn to nine substitutes and make them starters. Even Kalvin Phillips got a belated first start for City. Some 364 days after the previous time he figured in a Premier League starting 11, he headed against the base of the post, a first City goal eluding him. He was part of a makeshift midfield with Rico Lewis and Phil Foden; one is often a full-back of sorts, the other normally found in the front three. It was a reason why City were more open than usual, though it scarcely mattered.
More damningly, gaps magically appeared in Chelsea’s five-man defence when City scored. Cole Palmer picked out Alvarez and the Argentinian was free to place a shot beyond Kepa Arrizabalaga. Palmer began in terrific style and the 21-year-old almost marked just his second Premier League start with a goal, Trevoh Chalobah clearing his shot off the line. Foden came close with an audacious lob while Alvarez had a second goal ruled out because of a handball by Riyad Mahrez, his supplier. Alvarez was terrific but if no one else has a second-choice striker of such stature, City can argue he is a £14m bargain.
Chelsea, with as many league goals as Haaland has on his own, lack any kind of potent first-choice centre-forward, let alone a high-grade understudy. A side with a marked aversion to scoring had the opportunities to level after making a timid start. Stefan Ortega denied Raheem Sterling a goal on his return to the Etihad Stadium. Sterling was thwarted, too, by a brilliant goal-line clearance from his former teammate John Stones, even if he was then ruled offside. Sterling came off to a standing ovation, but from the home faithful; named Footballer of the Year and scorer of 31 goals in a season for City may have felt nostalgic for his old club. His season, like Chelsea’s, has been a harrowing affair.
Chelsea’s other threat stemmed from two of their own. Conor Gallagher headed Lewis Hall’s cross against the post. Hall and Gallagher acquitted themselves well, two youth-team products faring better than many of the buys. Meanwhile, Noni Madueke was strangely demoted to the bench by Lampard; Trevoh Chalobah ended up at left wing-back, irrelevant experiments as Chelsea’s season peters out.
Guardiola brought on some of the regulars, in Stones, Rodri, Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne, which meant they had to flee the pitch invasion after the final whistle. At least, though, they had something to celebrate. Two years ago, Chelsea beat City three times in six weeks and defeated them in a Champions League final. But, as one closes in on a historic treble and the other has endured one of the worst campaigns a superclub has ever had, it feels far longer ago.