Returning defenders starred on the first night of Week 24 of the 2019/20 Premier League season. Aymeric Laporte started his first game since August, helping Manchester City keep a clean sheet during a 1-0 win over Sheffield United.
Laporte's endeavours were impressive, but so were those of Hector Bellerin. The Arsenal right-back had been out since early December and made just his fourth start of the league campaign for the trip to Chelsea.
Yet the 24-year-old whose career has been stalled by the knee ligament injury he suffered last season was colossal at Stamford Bridge. Bellerin netted the 84th-minute equaliser to earn 10-man Arsenal a 2-2 draw and a precious point.
By contrast, Chelsea were left to rue not killing the game off after Jorginho struck from the penalty spot following David Luiz being shown a red card. The Blues struggled to create chances, even with the lead, because of a midfield lacking guile, with usually reliable destroyer N'Golo Kante particularly off the pace.
It was also an off night for City striker Gabriel Jesus. He got the nod over Sergio Aguero at Bramall Lane but saw his penalty saved by Dean Henderson in the first half.
To rub salt in the wound, the Brazilian was sent to the bench and had to watch Aguero net the 73rd-minute winner to remind everyone why he's still the main man in City's attack.
- Aston Villa 2-1 Watford
- Bournemouth 3-1 Brighton & Hove Albion
- Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton
- Everton 2-2 Newcastle United
- Sheffield United 0-1 Manchester City
- Chelsea 2-2 Arsenal
Standings (Played, Won, Goal Difference and Points)
1. Liverpool: 22, 21, +38, 64
2. Manchester City: 24, 16, +38, 51
3. Leicester City: 23, 14, +25, 45
4. Chelsea: 24, 12, +9, 40
5. Manchester United: 23, 9, +9, 34
6. Wolverhampton Wanderers: 23, 8, +4, 34
7. Sheffield United: 24, 8, +2, 33
8. Tottenham Hotspur: 23, 8, +5, 31
9. Southampton: 24, 9, -11, 31
10. Arsenal: 24, 6, -2, 30
11. Crystal Palace: 24, 7, -6, 30
12. Everton: 24, 8, -7, 30
13. Newcastle United: 24, 8, -12, 30
14. Burnley: 23, 8, -12, 27
15. Brighton & Hove Albion: 24, 6, -7, 25
16. Aston Villa: 24, 7, -14, 25
17. West Ham United: 22, 6, -8, 23
18. Bournemouth: 24, 6, -14, 23
19. Watford: 24, 5, -15, 23
20. Norwich City: 23, 4, -22, 17
Winner: Hector Bellerin
Arsenal have missed Bellerin's athleticism, technique and recovery pace since he tore ligaments against Chelsea in January 2019. He added tenacity and resolve to his familiar attributes once former Chelsea defender Luiz was sent walking after felling Tammy Abraham and conceding a spot-kick.
Bellerin handled the left side of Chelsea's attack comfortably, keeping the pace and flair of Willian under wraps. He also dealt with the overlapping runs of left-back Emerson Palmieri, despite receiving little defensive cover from Arsenal record-signing winger Nicolas Pepe.
It was all about the late goal, though. The Gunners had just gone behind for a second time after Cesar Azpilicueta cancelled out Gabriel Martinelli's superb solo finish.
Rather than buckle, Arsenal took the fight to the hosts led by Bellerin. He pushed high up the pitch, cut in from the right and curled a shot into the far corner with his weaker left foot.
The exquisite finish showcased the technique that once made Bellerin a prized member of Barcelona's famed academy. Having Bellerin back fit gives Mikel Arteta one complete full-back capable of putting his demanding and expansive tactics into practice.
Loser: N'Golo Kante
Kante has never been noted for his creativity, but his lack of technique is usually excused because of how effectively he breaks up the play. The Frenchman's one-dimensional game can be costly, as a sluggish Chelsea side found out.
Being a goal and a man up against a depleted Arsenal team lacking confidence should have been the cue for an emphatic win. Instead, Chelsea continually moved the ball at a pedestrian pace, with Kante one of the more culpable when it came to failing to see options in forward areas.
Ironically, Kante's biggest failing came off the ball in the kind of defensive area where he usually thrives. He slipped when backtracking to try and thwart Martinelli on the break, allowing the 18-year-old to run clear and finish coolly.
Kante making way for Mason Mount on 69 minutes signalled his diminishing status in Chelsea's ranks. No longer a guaranteed starter, Kante doesn't seem to fit Frank Lampard's vision for a team capable of winning through stylish use of possession.
Winner: Aymeric Laporte
Laporte going off against Brighton & Hove Albion on August 31 signalled the end of City's hopes of winning a third title in a row. Any hint of defensive resolve went with the former Athletic Bilbao man whose value was summed up by how he returned and helped keep the Blades at bay.
There was no surprise when the hosts went direct and tried to unsettle City with crosses. Laporte was unfazed, showing no hesitation, willingly diving into aerial duels and charging into 50-50 challenges on the deck.
Laporte's aggression and quality meant City were rarely threatened, even in a tight game. His comeback ended on 78 minutes when the 25-year-old appeared to be feeling an ache.
Some rust is only natural, but Guardiola knows how important it is to have his talisman at the back available again:
City won't win the title, but the UEFA Champions League will remain firmly in the club's sights as long as Laporte stays fit.
Loser: Gabriel Jesus
Putting a run of impressive games together is the only way Jesus is going to convince people he can realistically replace Aguero long-term. Unfortunately for the gifted 22-year-old, consistency continues to elude him.
Jesus was a yard or two off the pace for most of the 67 minutes he was on the pitch against the Blades. He was noticeably on his heels when Raheem Sterling forced Dean Henderson into a reflex save during the first half.
A more alert striker would have gratefully snaffled a tap-in from the rebound, but Jesus appeared caught by surprise. It wasn't the first time the moment seemed too much for the young No. 9.
Jesus couldn't hold his nerve from 12 yards, hitting a shot at a nice height for Henderson to save without too much fuss. The indifferent output from the spot further underlines Jesus' continued erratic form:
There's no denying he's a talent, but Jesus still lacks the killer instinct Aguero showed when he was well-positioned to touch Kevin De Bruyne's cross over the line and secure three precious points.