ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER
Manchester City’s 100 percent home league record has gone after Jose Mourinho won the tactical battle with his opposite number Manuel Pellegrini. Chelsea’s 1-0 win means just two points separate the top three teams in what is turning out to be the most open Premier League title race in years.
City had won all 11 of their previous home matches in the league this season, but Chelsea deservedly return to West London victorious after an excellent counter-attacking display saw them come out on top against Pellegrini's men for the second time this season.
It’s a huge opportunity missed for City to put some daylight between themselves and Chelsea, and the most worrying aspect for them was how comfortably Mourinho’s tactics outflanked the City boss.
Their quick counter-attacks caused City problems all evening, with Eden Hazard particularly impressive. His quick feet and ability to sidestep opponents make him one of the most potent attacking threats in English football, and his performance in this match was one of the finest individual displays of the season.
Branislav Ivanovic scored the vital goal, a brilliant left-footed strike low into the bottom corner, and Chelsea hit the woodwork three times and could easily have won by more.
City went into the match bereft of arguably their two finest performers so far this season—Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero—and their absence was clear from the off.
Fernandinho's energy was sorely missed as Martin Demichelis was drafted into midfield as his replacement, with the Argentine looking slow and cumbersome for much of the game, misplacing a number of passes as City lost the midfield battle comfortably.
And Aguero's pace and willingness to run in behind was a huge loss upfront, with Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko both putting in poor displays.
But credit to Chelsea, who were cast by many before the match as the side most likely to stymie any attempt at making it an open game. It was they who had far more cut and thrust going forward than City did.
The form of Matija Nastasic remains a huge concern for City—a player who did better than expected in his debut season, but whose performance level has collapsed badly this term. The club may regret not sealing a deal for Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala, whom they chased aggressively during the January transfer window, only to fail at the final hurdle on deadline day. It would hardly be a surprise if they were to renew their interest in the summer.
The one major plus for City was the second-half display of Stevan Jovetic, who replaced the ineffectual Negredo. He appears to be a very talented player capable of dropping deep and creating chances—either for himself or others.
In his post-match press conference, Pellegrini rued the absence of important players, and said it gave Chelsea the advantage:
Well I think that of course Fernandinho is an important player for us.
Not only him, you have to add Aguero, Nasri and Javi Garcia—Milner was not 100% so he couldn’t start, Alvaro Negredo wasn’t 100% either.
That’s too much of an advantage for an important team like Chelsea.
We lost today against a good team who played well but I thought we deserved at least a draw but they had the luck to win it.
They scored a beautiful goal, not an easy goal, he hit it from a long way out with the outside of his foot but before their goal we had clear chances to score, so I don’t there was a problem with the way we played.
City must now react positively to their first defeat in almost three months. Their last reverse came away at Sunderland and kick-started a run of 20 games unbeaten, including 18 wins. Tonight's defeat is undoubtedly a blow, but there are still many twists and turns left in this exciting race for the title, and City are more than capable of coming out on top.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.