The blues have dismantled many a defence in England’s top flight this season but it’s their resolve and unwavering dedication to their cause over the last three league outings that’s really struck fear into the hearts of their rivals.
First Huddersfield, then Southampton and most recently West Ham; all asked serious questions of City and on each occasion, Pep Guardiola‘s men rallied to deliver a late, dramatic and vehement response.
Manchester United, fittingly, now stand between them and a record 14th successive Premier League win. It’s not just the record that’s on the line though, even at this stage of the season, a large part of the title race will be decided by the Manchester derby on Sunday.
Lose at Old Trafford and United fall 11 points behind their neighbours, opening up a seemingly insurmountable gap between the two Manchester outfits. A victory on the other hand not only takes them within five points, but mitigates the fear factor City possess to a certain extent, offering encouragement for the rest of the division.
There’s been no shortage of fanfare around the Citizens this season. Guardiola’s fingerprints have been all over the team’s possession play, high press and fluid attacks. It’s the Spaniard’s specific brand of awe-inspiring football that’s enamoured spectators and proved irresistible to their opponents.
In contrast, United are still on a quest to find their own modus operandi. While they have enjoyed powering through weaker opposition this season, Jose Mourinho’s side still lack a clear approach, one that’s tailored to their strengths and would hold them in good stead even in the face of greater challenges.
Instead, United are the Premier League’s chameleons, changing colours and adapting to situations. In lieu of an identity of their own, the Reds are forced to morph into whatever it is that disrupts that of their opponents.
Although that’s not exactly a trait associated with champions, it’s precisely what makes them City’s most formidable opponents yet.
Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham had the right ideas. They sat back and frustrated City but despite exposing the league leaders’ vulnerabilities on the counter-attack, they lacked the quality and composure to take full advantage.
United will aspire to a similar performance to the one that earned them a win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Mourinho is well-versed with that particular tactical plan and studied in Guardiola’s as well. In Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, he has the tools to undo his counterpart’s philosophical approach.
The Portuguese will happily pack his midfield, close down the likes of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne whilst denying space for City’s forwards to run in behind. All it takes at the other end is a set-piece, a longball for Lukaku, a knock-down for Martial, and the visitors’ possession will count for nothing.
Paul Pogba’s absence is a blow but that will only force his side to be even more direct and incisive on the break, perhaps hurting City to a greater extent.
It is a massive undertaking but at the end of the day, nothing less than a win will do for United. They’re the ones with a lot more to lose at this stage and can’t expect other teams in the division to cut City down if they are unable to do it themselves.
They must deliver a message that resonates across the Premier League. City are not invincible.
Arnautovic struck after only six minutes to condemn the champions to a first defeat in seven Premier League matches.
The £24million club-record signing was jeered by home fans earlier in the season after some below-par displays, but he looks a player reborn under Moyes.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
Adrian. That’s all. #COYI
— Shaka Hislop (@ShakaHislop) December 9, 2017
Former West Ham goalkeeper Shaka Hislop applauds Adrian’s performance in net after Joe Hart was dropped.
STAR MAN – MARKO ARNAUTOVIC
Arnautovic looks unrecognisable compared to the player that was operating under former boss Slaven Bilic earlier this season, showing his class with the superb winner early on.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
The London Stadium erupted when Arnautovic fired West Ham ahead in the sixth minute. The former Stoke forward exchanged passes with Manuel Lanzini before curling a left-footed effort into the bottom corner.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi took bench warming to a new level at the London Stadium. The Belgium international, regularly named among the substitutes under Antonio Conte, went viral on social media when he was seen fighting the cold in an unusual way.
Wearing gloves, a woolly hat and an overcoat, Batshuayi was seen warming his face with a hot water bottle.
It’s cold out there, yes. But have you ever seen a professional footballer do this with a hot water bottle on the bench?
Michy Batshuayi – oh dear! 😂 pic.twitter.com/KGywPvgxh7
— TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk) December 9, 2017
WHAT NEXT FOR HART?
The West Ham goalkeeper paid the price for his unavailability against his parent club Manchester City last week.
Adrian stepped into his shoes and produced a fine performance, leaving Moyes with no option but to retain him in goal against Chelsea.
The Spaniard kept a clean sheet to make matters worse for Hart and, in a World Cup year, Moyes’ decision could leave the England goalkeeper’s number-one hopes in tatters.
After a difficult start to life with the Hammers following his big-money move from Stoke, Arnautovic picked the perfect game to open his account for the club at the 14th attempt.
Chelsea were undone by a Marko Anautovic early goal as they suffered a 1-0 defeat away to West Ham.
The Premier League champions were frustrated as David Moyes’ side defended stubbornly to maintain a clean sheet.
Here, we rate the Chelsea players.
THIBAUT COURTOIS: Didn’t have much to do apart from conceding the opener. Denied Arnautovic from a one-on-one but the flag was already raised for offside. 5
CESAR AZPILICUETA: Was squared up for the goal, allowing Arnautovic a yard to shoot far too easily. Looked off the pace and struggled to cope with Arnautovic and Antonio. 4
GARY CAHILL: Played almost as midfielder for most of the game as Chelsea pressed up the pitch. 5
ANDREAS CHRISTENSEN: Stepped up intelligently to play offside a couple of times. Shuttled to the right and covered for Azpilicueta. Had a good effort blocked in the second half. 6
DAVIDE ZAPPACOSTA: Relentlessly tried to offer an attacking threat down the right but was denied space to run into. Managed a few decent crosses and adapted well to switching to the left-side in the second half. 5
N’GOLO KANTE: Had to sweep up largely on his own in midfield every time the hosts broke and he did that reasonably well. Created the best chance of the game which Morata squandered. 6
EDEN HAZARD: Pulled the strings in the final third but struggled to carve West Ham open. Went close with a strike across the face of goal. Was Chelsea’s chief threat. Had his best chance late on from outside the box but fired it over. 6
TIEMOUE BAKAYOKO: Drove forward at every opportunity and had a couple of shots. Subbed off at half-time as Conte brought on Pedro to tweak his system. 5
CESC FABREGAS: Saw plenty of the ball but was a little hit and miss. A couple of fine passes but some over hit ones as well. Difficult with no space in behind. 4
MARCOS ALONSO: Picked up an early booking. Spent most of the game in the final third but to no effect. 4
ALVARO MORATA: Kept the centre-backs busy but needed to be stronger on a few occasions. Had a header go wide in the first half. Missed a great chance late on and set up Hazard for another just after. 6
PEDRO (for Bakayoko 46′): Was introduced to make inroads in the defence but lost possession too often. Was a bit selfish as well, taking on shots or trying to dribble when there were better options available. 4
VICTOR MOSES (for Alonso 55′): Offered a bit more going forward. 5
WILLIAN (for Zappacosta 64′): Provided more threat going forward but like his teammates, couldn’t make it through the West Ham wall. 5