Perhaps it was almost as Todd Boehly had envisioned: at a Chelsea game in May, the new champions received an honor guard after possibly securing their first treble and clinching victory over fallen rivals. Only Chelsea had to form the honor guard – perhaps the closest thing to a coherent formation in a while – and Manchester City celebrated in the sunshine.
The Nouveaux Riches were sister clubs for years, but since each attained extreme wealth, there has never been a greater gulf between them. If money has spoken and one has spent largely big bucks in recent seasons, the other spectacularly poorly in the last 12 months, then the corollary is that City’s fifth league title in six seasons came a day before losing to Chelsea for the first time the bottom half has been sealed late since 1996.
City have the luxury of having Julian Alvarez as their second-choice forward; Erling Haaland’s rested deluxe deputy is world champion and extended the winning streak to 12 league games. But there was more to a season of outrage for Chelsea. Pep Guardiola’s side felt a sudden change on Saturday night, City’s coronation prompting him to rest nine of his regulars against Real Madrid. But his second-team is doing better than the club with a £600m makeover; In fact, City have more than twice as many points as Chelsea. Chelsea had lost to a severely weakened City in the FA Cup and did the same in the Premier League. Over the course of the season, Chelsea met City four times, losing all four and never scoring a goal. Alvarez has scored against them in three competitions, while Chelsea have only scored against anyone in two competitions. Of their four defeats, this may have been the most respectable. Real Madrid had conceded four goals at the Etihad, like Liverpool and Arsenal before them. Chelsea conceded just one as City clinched their 16th consecutive home win in 2023; in fact, Frank Lampard’s Everton were the last team to stop them on their own turf.
But the context changed the moment Nottingham Forest beat Arsenal. This turned into a show game for City, a chance for Guardiola to call on nine substitutes and put them in the starting XI. Even Kalvin Phillips had a delayed first start for City. Some 364 days after the last time he started the Premier League, he headed against the post but failed to score his first goal for City. He was part of a makeshift midfield with Rico Lewis and Phil Foden; One is often a full-back of sorts, with the other usually found in the front three rows. That was one of the reasons City were more open than usual, although it hardly mattered.
Worse, as City scored, gaps magically appeared in Chelsea’s five-man defence. Cole Palmer selected Alvarez and the Argentine was able to put a shot past Kepa Arrizabalaga. Palmer started with great style and the 21-year-old almost marked his second Premier League start with a goal when Trevoh Chalobah cleared his shot off the line. Foden came close with a bold lob while Alvarez was ruled out for a second goal due to a handball from Riyad Mahrez, his supplier. Alvarez was great but when no one else has a second striker of this stature City can claim he is a £14m bargain.
Chelsea, who have scored as many goals in the league as Haaland alone, don’t have a strong first-choice centre-forward, let alone a quality understudy. A side with a pronounced aversion to goals had an opportunity to equalize after a timid start. Stefan Ortega prevented a Raheem Sterling goal on his return to the Etihad Stadium. Sterling was also thwarted by a brilliant save from former team-mate John Stones on the goal-line, although he was ruled offside. Sterling received a standing ovation but remained loyal from the home side; He was named Footballer of the Year and scored 31 goals for City in one season. Maybe he was nostalgic for his old club. His season, like Chelsea’s, was a harrowing affair.
Chelsea’s other threat came from two of their own players. Conor Gallagher headed Lewis Hall’s cross against the post. Hall and Gallagher have done well, with two youth team products outperforming many of the buys. Meanwhile, Noni Madueke was oddly benched by Lampard; Trevoh Chalobah landed at left-back, an irrelevant experiment as Chelsea’s season drew to a close.
Guardiola brought in some of the regulars in Stones, Rodri, Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne, meaning they had to flee after the final whistle in the pitch invasion. But at least they had something to celebrate. Two years ago, Chelsea City beat three times in six weeks, beating them in a Champions League final. But while one is getting closer to that historic treble and the other has endured one of the worst seasons a superclub has ever seen, it feels like it’s been a lot longer.