Chelsea return to Manchester City a very different team from a year ago

Chelsea disintegrated on their last trip to Manchester City but it’s all changed now. We look back on that 3-0 defeat and why they are a very different proposition one year on…

It’s only 16 months ago but for Chelsea supporters it must already feel like a different era. It’s not just the names of those involved that date the club’s last trip to the Etihad Stadium, although the involvement of Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado says plenty, but the emotions and events that have occurred since. Much of the drama came to a head that day.

When Gary Cahill went down with a head injury in the first half, Manchester City supporters got the moment they’d been waiting for. There were cheers and jeers as Chelsea’s all-new medical team ran on to attend, the previous pairing, Dr Eva Carneiro included, having been demoted the previous week. “You’re getting sacked in the morning,” came the chant.

December 3, 2016, 11:30am

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Jose Mourinho – practising studied insouciance on the touchline – didn’t last much too longer himself. Looking back, it was a moment laced with meaning but much of it was unclear at the time. There had been hints in pre-season, failed signings and faltering form, but the opening-day draw with Swansea might still have been a mere blip.

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Within moments of kick-off that theory began to unravel as Sergio Aguero broke through. “Ten seconds in and Aguero is behind our back line,” said Mourinho afterwards. “Defensively, we were quite fragile.” The cuts evident at the Etihad were to become gaping wounds. Branislav Ivanovic exposed. John Terry struggling too.

The Chelsea captain was removed at half-time, substituted for the first time by Mourinho in a Premier League game. Terry had been the rock upon which the title had been won the previous spring but he’s not come close to hitting those heights since. What seemed such a seismic shift at the time, now seems normal. He is out of the side under Antonio Conte.

But Terry wasn’t the only one to struggle at City. Cesc Fabregas was too easily bypassed in midfield, facing the same difficulties that appear to have scuppered his chances of a regular role in Conte’s starting line-up. At least that hope remains. Ramires, his wing-man against City, born only a few weeks before Fabregas, now gets his kicks at Jiangsu Suning in China.

But it’s not only the men who’ve been moved aside who mark the change at Chelsea over the past year. The transformation in those who are still at the centre of things is equally significant. Diego Costa was a shadow of his former self against City, looking sluggish and slow even before being bandaged up after an elbow to the head from Fernandinho.

Costa covered 8.68 kilometres that afternoon. He’s not run so little in 90 minutes in any appearances this season. He would later admit that he wasn’t in top physical condition at the start of that season and went on to score in only four of his next 22 games. It’s a sharp contrast with his current form, having netted 13 times in 18 games. The beast is back.

Eden Hazard is on form again too. He was anonymous that day at the Etihad as he was to be for much of Chelsea’s miserable campaign, but he’ll be expected to be the danger man once more when they return. Nemanja Matic is the powerful midfield presence of old as well, but it’s the new figures such as N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso who have brought a freshness.

With Alonso and the reborn Victor Moses as wing-backs, Conte has put his stamp on things. The switch to 3-4-3 has seen Chelsea concede a third of the goals they did that day in their last seven matches – all of them won. As a result, they go back as league leaders. The City fans who chanted “easy” a year ago won’t expect it to be so straightforward on Saturday.

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