Rodri’s late strike earned City a draw but they dropped vital points in the Premier League title race (Reuters)
The last time Chelsea beat Manchester City, Rodri had a watching brief from the bench. He was an unused substitute in the 2021 Champions League final and if both his and Chelsea’s fortunes have shifted dramatically since then – the Spaniard scoring the winner in Europe’s biggest club game of 2023 while the former champions finished in the lower half of the Premier League – it took a crunch player’s latest crucial intervention to extend two unbeaten runs.
Thanks to his equaliser, City have not lost to Chelsea in the subsequent eight rematches. They have not been defeated at home in 34 matches, spanning 462 days. And yet, well-timed as his damage-limitation exercise was, it was still a day when City suffered harm. Liverpool and Arsenal registered emphatic wins so City find themselves third in a three-horse race, their sequence of 11 straight wins ended. This was a reminder to the wider world that glory is no formality.
For Mauricio Pochettino it was a case of what might have been and what almost was on a night when his side looked a force to be reckoned with. The best win of his Chelsea career beckoned until Rodri rifled a half-volley that flicked off the substitute Trevoh Chalobah’s knee and flew in to give the defensive midfielder his seventh goal of a season that has plenty of time still to run.
Rodri stepped up again to earn City a point but Pep Guardiola’s men dropped points in the title race (EPA)
Chelsea have begun to exert an impact in the title race; not in the way Todd Boehly envisaged when he bought the club or spent £1bn on players, admittedly, but Pochettino’s team can acquit themselves well against the best. Kings once, they can be kingmakers, even if they trouble each of the pretenders to the throne. They had already drawn with each of the top three. Taking points off City again came courtesy of Pep Guardiola’s cast-offs. As they go for a fourth successive title, City have lost four points because of their alumni.
Cole Palmer had scored the 95th-minute equaliser at Stamford Bridge in November, with Raheem Sterling also on target in that 4-4 draw. Guardiola has a policy of being happy to sell to rivals – though Chelsea’s descent into mid-table may mean they have lost that status – but as Sterling struck again, City’s past proved costly.
They have rarely had cause to regret selling him, while Chelsea might rue buying him. Yet on a return to a familiar haunt, instead of the expensive underachiever Chelsea have seen, Sterling resembled the player transformed by Guardiola. His goal was a case in point. It was also an indictment of a long-time teammate as Kyle Walker allowed a former teammate to cut inside and shoot too easily. Their duel was to go Sterling’s way again when he survived a VAR check for a penalty at the other end.
Raheem Sterling opened the scoring with a calm finish against his former club (AP)
Before then, Sterling sauntered past Walker to bend a shot past Ederson after Malo Gusto fed Nicolas Jackson who centred for the winger. Yet it was far from the only time City were caught on the counterattack. Jackson ought to have broken the deadlock earlier, his heavy touch allowing Ederson to block after Palmer and Gusto had carved City open.
There was almost a second, Ederson making a point-blank block from Sterling before Ben Chilwell’s follow-up effort was cleared off the line. The instigator, once again, was Gusto: outstanding on the break, the right-back is shaping up as a rarity, coup of a signing in the Boehly era. Jackson’s speed made him another menace, even if he can be erratic.
Pochettino’s gameplan of sitting back and looking to use Chelsea’s pace to spring breaks yielded a menace: Conor Gallagher almost unlocked the City defence with his passing. It had the makings of a heist: meticulously planned, largely brilliantly executed.
But Chelsea had to withstand a storm, as well as the Manchester rain. City racked up the shots, ending with 29, even if many of them were unthreatening. Their makeshift rearguard produced some last-ditch defending.
Axel Disasi headed off his own line to spare Jackson an own goal. The Frenchman and Levi Colwill had precious little experience as a partnership but, in the absence of the injured Thiago Silva, they coped admirably. Colwill had to survive an injury-time review for a penalty when the ball slid down his arm but each was excellent as Chelsea flung bodies in the way of the ball.
Erling Haaland had three great chances to score but headed all of them over the top (Action Images via Reuters)
City were saved by weight of pressure and urgency rather than fluency. They were disjointed and direct, their formation bordering on 4-2-4 at times but it meant they lacked control and looked susceptible to the counterattack. Erling Haaland endured a night of frustration, ending with 10 attempts but no goal. The Norwegian headed over from a Julian Alvarez cross, had a fierce shot parried by Djordje Petrovic and misjudged a header when found by Kevin De Bruyne.
And that summed up much of City’s night: with a strange lack of direction, lacking their usual precision. It was why they became reliant on Rodri. And, once again, he delivered.