MANCHESTER, England — For the second time in a month, Chelsea beat Manchester City and, while this 2-1 Premier League win might have offered few clues about whether they can make it a hat trick in the Champions League final on May 29, Thomas Tuchel’s side have made sure they go into European club football’s showpiece fixture with, at the very least, a mental edge.
After winning their FA Cup semifinal and ending City’s hopes of a quadruple last month, Chelsea came from behind at the Etihad Stadium in the Manchester rain thanks to a stoppage-time goal from Marcos Alonso, which added to an earlier equalizer from Hakim Ziyech.
As Alonso’s scuffed effort looped beyond Ederson‘s outstretched hand, Guardiola was still furiously remonstrating with fourth official Jon Moss about why, moments earlier, Raheem Sterling had not been awarded a penalty when he was bundled over by Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma.
City might feel hard done by, but it probably should not have come to that; had Sergio Aguero built upon Sterling’s opener by scoring a penalty to make it 2-0 just before half-time, the home side would surely have gone on to get the win they needed to confirm themselves as Premier League champions.
Instead, their all-time top scorer’s attempted Panenka was caught by Edouard Mendy and City’s day went downhill from there; the title party will have to wait, although they could begin as soon as Sunday, if Manchester United lose at Aston Villa.
“We miss the first [penalty] and the second was not given,” said Guardiola afterward. “That’s all. It’s a penalty. It’s a penalty, I don’t know about VAR, the officials know why they didn’t give it. We have to score the first one. In general it was a good performance, we had the chances to win late on.”
Despite his frustrations, the City manager looked at the big picture, knowing that the league is as good as won, while his side’s most important meeting with Chelsea is yet to come.
“We have another three chances to be champions, we have to learn from this and carry on,” Guardiola said. “We play Chelsea again in 21 days. This game will be forgotten. In 21 days we are going to face them again in the Champions League final. We will learn from that and get the points we need to be champions.”
Chelsea, meanwhile, secured a vital victory in their bid to finish in the top four, having made the most of their opponents’ profligacy. Ziyech levelled after good work from Christian Pulisic and Cesar Azpilicueta, then Alonso converted Callum Hundson-Odoi’s cross.
Tuchel’s men are third in the table with three games left against Arsenal, Leicester – who they also face in next Saturday’s FA Cup final (stream LIVE on ESPN+ in U.S.) and Aston Villa. After that comes the Champions League showdown — whether in Istanbul or elsewhere — and wins over City at Wembley and here should mean Chelsea are given more than just a puncher’s chance.
“I think the second half was a fantastic response to the last five minutes of the first half where we almost lost it all,” said Tuchel. “With every minute we gained confidence and quality. We got better and better. It was a tough battle and once we got the equaliser we never stopped attacking. This tells us we can rely on our fitness which is a fantastic feeling at the end of a season. We can also rely on our team spirit, we keep going.”
As they waited for their pre-match interviews, Guardiola and Tuchel spent a few moments chatting at the mouth of the tunnel. Guardiola joked that his opposite number “gave me the tactics for the final of the Champions League,” but in reality both managers did their best to show as little as possible.
Only six of the players likely to start the Champions League final were in Tuchel’s XI and Guardiola’s line-up featured even fewer; Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden were all named on the bench, while Kevin De Bruyne watched from the stands with the suspended John Stones after picking up a knock in training.
When Sterling scored, Walker bounced around, first hugging Gundogan and then twirling his shirt above his head. As the second half began, the full-back turned to ask De Bruyne if he was nervous. In typically calm fashion, the Belgian international answered “no” and City looked in such control that there appeared little hope of a Chelsea comeback.
“It was a tight game, but in general we played really good,” Guardiola said. “We miss our chance in the last minute of the first half with the penalty. [Chelsea] are a top side and we were playing better. We were in a good position but in the end they score.”
The second-half turnaround brought back memories of a 3-2 derby defeat to Man United three years ago, when City needed a victory to win the league only to throw away a two-goal lead. Defeat then only delayed the inevitable and so will this one.
Beginning Sunday, United play three times in the space of five days and City could be champions before they go to Newcastle United on Friday. Adding the first Champions League trophy in club history is less certain, however, particularly with Chelsea and Tuchel in the way again.