When Chelsea last played Manchester City in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge on January 3, the gulf in quality – in spite of a £230million summer spend from the west London outfit just six months earlier – was rather stark.
The Blues started well but failed to take advantage and ended up outclassed, despite the away team struggling with Covid cases and injuries. Three first-half goals in the space of 16 minutes helped City win 3-1 with Chelsea’s consolation only coming in stoppage time.
Three weeks later, Frank Lampard was out of a job. The manner of the performance in that particular result was said to have understandably frustrated Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy.
City dismantled Lampard’s side time and time again on their way to one of their finest wins of the season. It only moved them three points clear of the Londoners in the league table, but the contrasting performances of the two teams proved the gap was much bigger than the standings suggested.
Fast forward to the present day and with Man City knowing they would be crowned Premier League champions on Saturday night with victory against Chelsea at the Etihad, a markedly different contest was served up that resulted in a 2-1 win.
With the Blues winning the FA Cup semi-final tie between the two teams last month, they came into this match also knowing City would want revenge but also that the duo will do battle once more later this month.
That of course will be in the Champions League final, whether it is held in the United Kingdom or in Istanbul, Turkey as initially planned by UEFA.
And having deservedly defeated a disappointing City at Wembley in the final four of the FA Cup, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea were again impressive in downing the champions elect for a second consecutive game.
The defensive steel Chelsea showed was vastly superior to that on display in the last league meeting, though an error from Andreas Christensen allowed Raheem Sterling to make it 1-0 before half-time.
Billy Gilmour was then grateful that Sergio Aguero chipped a penalty straight into the hands of Edouard Mendy before the break after bringing the Argentine down.
But Chelsea were excellent in the second 45 as they pegged the home team back through Hakim Ziyech and looked for a win that would have lifted them up to third.
They eventually got it through Marcos Alonso at the death and throughout the 90, Chelsea provided regular reminders that they are a very different team to what they were under Lampard just a few months ago, even if they might have been out of the game at half-time had Aguero scored his penalty.
This performance came despite making five changes from the side that got past Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals in midweek.
From looking miles adrift of the pace-setters in January, Chelsea now appear as though they are ready to go the distance with City next season.
And that’s before they utilise the transfer window to further strengthen their squad, with a striker – either Erling Haaland or Romelu Lukaku per reports – top of the agenda.
Before then, they will hope to win the FA Cup against Leicester, wrap up a top-four finish and then beat City to win the European Cup. They stand as good a chance as anyone of beating Pep Guardiola’s side.
Chelsea’s performances in the biggest of matches under Tuchel, who has gotten the better of a long list of elite managers during his short stint in England, indicate they can also be major rivals to City next season.
Such rapid progress has made Tuchel’s predecessor Lampard look rather silly given comments he made just days before he was sacked earlier this year.
In the wake of a 2-0 loss to Leicester, which left Chelsea in eighth and five points adrift of the top four, Lampard said: “I took this job knowing there would be difficult times as it’s not a club ready to compete.
“We had a transfer ban, we had young players, we had new players. I understand the expectations of this club, whether I think it’s right or wrong.
“We are not in the same position Chelsea were when we were winning titles. The consistency, the robustness, the level of experience of winning Premier Leagues is not the same.”
Ultimately, Abramovich has been proven right in his decision to sack Lampard, even if the club fail to win either of their two cup finals later this month.
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The fact they are even 90 minutes away in each competition from winning two of the game’s biggest honours, on top of looking set to secure Champions League qualification for next season, means Tuchel deserves immense credit.
Having inherited a side supposedly ‘not ready’ to compete for the biggest prizes, Chelsea aren’t so close to silverware but have also now twice gone toe-to-toe with the best team in the country – and perhaps in Europe.
They have a win and a draw to show, though they will be desperate to avoid a defeat which would complete the set when they meet in the Champions League final next time out.
Chelsea’s improvement, with this only their third loss across all competitions under Tuchel after 25 games, has been monumental.
While with Lampard at the helm Chelsea looked like they needed major work still, the top-class coaching of Tuchel has made them a team to be feared, as they showed against City once more.
A penny for Lampard’s thoughts on how readymade the Chelsea squad are to compete for the grandest of prizes now, then.