Our very first home game behind closed doors was a cracking contest and ended with three precious Chelsea points courtesy of Willian’s second-half penalty.
There may not have been any supporters inside Stamford Bridge, but this meeting of top-four sides did not lack for intensity or excitement, and remained in the balance throughout. Chelsea were worthy winners in the end.
Christian Pulisic had given us the lead before the break with a sublime individual effort, and a goal of similar quality drew the visitors level after it, Kevin De Bruyne’s dipping set-piece ending up in the top corner.
Raheem Sterling and Pulisic then went very close at either end, before an intervention from VAR handed us the opportunity to seize control. After a scramble on the line, Fernandinho handled and was dismissed. Willian stroked the penalty home.
While much of the attention will focus on Liverpool’s coronation, this was a mighty impressive Chelsea victory that maintains our five-point advantage over fifth-placed Manchester United. The performance will please Frank Lampard just as much, with his side markedly the better after the two drinks breaks.
Prior to kick-off all the players, staff and officials took the knee, a symbol of support for the Black Lives Matter protests, with the Stamford Bridge advertising hoardings conveying that message for the first couple of minutes. In the stands, the extraordinary work of the NHS and key workers was recognised with a huge banner in the West Lower, with other Chelsea flags spread out around the ground in an effort to make it feel as much like home as possible.
The visitors started without a recognised striker, interchanging their forward players throughout, and it was they who settled the quicker, although Kepa was untroubled until kicking a low cross away with nine minutes played.
Chelsea burst into life shortly afterwards with Olivier Giroud and Christian Pulisic cleverly combining in the centre circle to create space. Cesar Azpilicueta freed Willian whose low centre was cleared for a corner that Mason Mount volleyed high into the Shed.
There was a scare for the Blues when a Kepa pass landed short, giving Bernardo Silva a sight of goal, but thankfully he was crowded out. The keeper was quickly back at his best, tipping a Fernandinho header over.
After a drinks break that proved something of a turning point in the first half, Ross Barkley had a fierce strike blocked at the end of a move in which Willian and Marcos Alonso starred.
There was certainly space to be had behind a very high City rearguard, and we nearly capitalised on it on the half-hour. Ross Barkley strode into space and crossed, with Giroud and Pulisic again neatly exchanging passes before the latter’s shot was deflected back into Barkley’s path. His effort was cleared from near the goal-line, and from the resulting corner Christensen’s header was kept out by Ederson, with Azpilicueta slashing the rebound over.
So it wasn’t a great surprise when we took the lead on 36 minutes. Again it was a counter-attack that caused problems. De Bruyne’s free-kick was cleared to halfway and Benjamin Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan miscommunicated, with Pulisic snaffling up the loose ball.
Ten yards inside his own half, the American still had plenty to do. What followed was pure perfection. He first scurried past Gundogan, and then invited a challenge from Mendy before skipping beyond him and racing clear. With just Ederson to beat now, Pulisic sublimely curled his finish inside the right-hand post.
The Blues were content to defend that lead resolutely before the interval, with just a Mahrez shot over causing alarm.
When play resumed, Christensen bravely blocked a ferocious Mendy strike with his head. The Dane was okay to continue after a check-up.
It was a free-kick of exceptional quality that drew City level, as N'Golo Kante’s foul on Mahrez was punished by De Bruyne, who whipped his effort over the wall and into the top corner.
In the balance
City then very nearly did to us what we did to Villa on Sunday: turn the game on its head in a flash. This time it was they who broke at speed, Mahrez slipping in Sterling who dinked over Kepa but against the post.
Seconds after Tammy Abraham replaced Giroud, Ederson passed the ball straight to Mount who had a clear opening but fired into the side-netting. It was a very good chance to restore our lead.
Midway through the second period, and with City tails up, Sterling whipped an effort wide. Then came another welcome drinks break for Lampard and his charges.
On 70 minutes, Pulisic stole in behind and so nearly doubled his and our tally. He burst clear of Fernandinho, took the ball around Ederson and steered goalwards with the angle narrowing. It looked set to roll in, but Kyle Walker appeared from nowhere to slide and stop it on the line, with Abraham unfortunate not to be able to force it home.
It felt like déjà vu when Pulisic and then Abraham somehow failed to bundle the ball in following wing wizardry from Willian and an Ederson save. Amid the scramble, our striker’s screams could be heard all over SW6, and replays showed why: Fernandinho had palmed Abraham’s nudged effort away. VAR’s decision, a penalty and red card, was simple, while referee Stuart Atwell deserves credit for allowing play to go on earlier in the move when De Bruyne tried to halt Willian near the touchline.
Willian stepped up and coolly beat his compatriot high to the left.
Twelve minutes plus six of stoppage time remained. For the most part, the Blues were solid in defence and a threat on the break, never more so than when subs Billy Gilmour and Pedro combined. The Spaniard was superbly denied by the stretching Ederson, but it mattered not.
So Chelsea can revel in a fantastic victory that could prove crucial in the race for the top four, with the result also ensuring the red side of Merseyside will have cause for celebration after 30 years without a league title.
Barkley and Pulisic were the fresh faces selected by Lampard, both having made a significant impact off the bench in the win at Villa Park. Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek made way. Jorginho was also on the bench after suspension.
Pulisic showed his alertness closer to goal at Villa, and then his threat further away tonight. Twice he capitalised on hesitancy in the opposition ranks to break free, and was so unlucky not to add to his blistering opener that gave us the lead. Having been out for a couple of months prior to lockdown, he looks set to have a major impact on the rest of the season.
The wonder of Willian
It was only two days ago Willian's contract extension until the end of this season was confirmed, and he highlighted his worth to the team for the second goal. A superb run down the flank, and evasion of De Bruyne who was trying to stop him, culminated in the melee that led to the red card. And from 12 yards, he never looked like missing. It was yet another major contribution from our brilliant Brazilian.
That's now three league home wins in a row for the Blues, with three top-half sides - Tottenham, Everton and City - beaten. It has not always been easy at the Bridge this term but Lampard's team show signs of building momentum in west London. That could be vital if we are to finish in the top four.
It’s a short turnaround for Lampard and his side as we head to Leicester on Sunday afternoon with our focus switching to the FA Cup. The quarter-final tie starts at 4pm. Our next league action is at West Ham on Wednesday.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, Christensen, Alonso; Barkley (Kovacic 73), Kante, Mount (Pedro 90+1); Willian, Giroud (Abraham 62), Pulisic (Gilmour 90+1).
Unused subs Caballero, James, Zouma, Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek.
Scorers Pulisic 36, Willian (pen) 78
Booked Alonso 38
Man City (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Laporte (Otamendi 73), Fernandinho (c), Mendy (Zinchenko 59); De Bruyne, Rodrigo (D Silva 55), Gundogan; Mahrez, B Silva (Jesus 55), Sterling.
Unused subs Carson, Sane, Doyle, Harwood-Bellis, Palmer.
Scorer De Bruyne 55
Booked De Bruyne 76
Sent off Fernandinho 77
Referee Stuart Atwell