Before the game, a cheeky Chelsea fan posed for a photo outside the Etihad Stadium, brandishing a blow-up European Cup.
An equally mischievous Manchester City fan passing by reached out and popped the balloon in what was to prove a metaphor for the match – Chelsea living on their European success and the Blues simply bursting their bubble.
Chelsea fans flouted their win in Porto by waving more of the imitation trophies in the ground, but the game underlined why the reigning English champions are still better than the European champions, in what was a clash of the top two.
Fittingly it was Kevin De Bruyne, who was dubbed a £54million Chelsea reject when he moved to City nearly seen years ago, who scored the only goal, a strike of breathtaking brilliance.
He has haunted his old club before, and here he was, scoring the goals that opens the gap at the top to 13 points and as good as rules the Londoners out of the title race.
Thomas Tuchel had moaned before the game that City had been lucky with Covid and injuries in the last six weeks, which was utter nonsense – Chelsea actually had more senior first-teamers available throughout December and early January.
That was underlined when the teamsheets dropped for this game, with 19 Chelsea players being seasoned professionals and only 29-year-old Marcus Bettinelli, the 29-year-old reserve keeper with over 100 Fulham appearances under his belt, anything close to inexperienced.
By contrast, the Blues had four youngsters on the bench, and 16 senior pros, which is more a reflection of their small squad – only Nathan Ake, the injured Aleks Zinchenko and Cole Palmer were missing.
Here were two teams both at virtual full strength, and City showed that tier superiority in the league is nothing to do with the vagaries of Covid, or luck, or the demanding schedule, and everything to do with superior class, team ethic and sheer bloody-minded resilience from both Pep Guardiola and his players.
Guardiola left Ruben Dias on the bench, which brought groans from the City faithful who rightly associate the Portuguese rock’s displays as key to the huge improvement in City’s defending in the past two seasons.
But the way Aymeric Laporte and John Stones have performed in the last year, they need to have more faith.
The only question mark was whether Stones’ long lay-off through Covid might affect him, especially in a physical encounter with Romelu Lukaku.
Those fears seemed well-founded when Stones, under pressure from the big Belgian, stretched for a ball, missed his footing and gave Chelsea three-on-one. Luckily Lukaku took the wrong option, slipping a pass to Hakim Ziyech who had strayed offside, and the chance was gone.
But that was a rare threat from Chelsea, and entirely down to a City error.
If Tuchel could see beyond his false Covid narrative, he would have seen, for the rest of the first half, exactly why City have opened a gap at the top – they are simply better, work harder and perform as a unit.
This was not quite the masterclass that a similar team put on at Stamford Bridge to pull off a big 1-0 win in September, but it was not far off.
Raheem Sterling was in for Gabriel Jesus in the only attacking change from that starting XI, and he was exceptional.
Sterling has done nothing clever in the last month, he just seems to have his confidence and mojo back, even when playing on the right-hand side, as he was here.
He was simply standing up left back Marcos Alonso and sprinting past him, and the Chelsea man’s early response was to commit a yellow-card foul that had him treading on eggshells for the rest of the game.
City were pressing the visitors into mistakes, and the best chance of the opening 45 minutes came from Kevin De Bruyne hassling Mateo Kovacic into giving up the ball – it bounced straight into the path of Grealish, 20 yards out, just Kepa Arrizabalaga to beat.
The keeper spread himself well and the shot bounced off his hip to drop narrowly wide- the keeper did well, but in games like this, when chances don’t come along every five minutes, those have to be taken.
Chelsea showed more enterprise after the break, presumably having been treated to the kind of manic display Tuchel had put on throughout the first half, bouncing around his technical area – and outside of it – to gesticulate and harangue his beleaguered players.
Their positive start nearly paid off as Lukak streaked through the middle, but Ederson produced a fine stop to keep out the shot, and Ziyech blazed the rebound over.
City were still posing the greater threat, but could not find the goal they needed to emphasise their superiority, with Sterling teasing Malang Sarr and then dragging his shot inches wide of the far post.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and inevitably it was De Bruyne.
De Bruyne has two kinds of game – those in which he is brilliant and provides goals and assists, and those where he is not quite at his best but still produces something that wins you the game.
This was the latter, and what a moment it was.
There seemed to be little on when he latched onto the ball ten yards inside the Chelsea half, especially with the terrier-like N’Golo Kante snapping at his heels.
But Kante dived in, a hefty challenge that might have brought a free kick and yellow card had De Bruyne not stayed on his feet and driven hard toward the box.
He needed to check to get the ball out of his feet, and it seemed that had taken the sting out of his shot, but precision is everything with the brilliant Belgian, and he expertly judged a curling, drifting shot into the far corner.
It was a goal worthy of winning any game, and the fact that De Bruyne produced it in such a crucial encounter just adds to his world-class credentials.
Chelsea tried to fight their way back into the game but City defended with organisation and grit, and if anything should have extended their lead as Foden and Grealish both missed opportunities.
It mattered not. It was appropriate that De Bruyne’s classic strike should be the difference as the Blues march on.
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