Manchester City will be crowned Premier League champions at some point, probably in the next few days in fact. Everyone knows that. Yet that is no excuse for playing as though already performing a victory lap, which Pep Guardiola will no doubt remind Sergio Aguero after this missed opportunity to seal a third title in four years.
At the end of the first half of this 2-1 defeat to Chelsea, a sneak preview of the Champions League final, Aguero had the opportunity to double City’s advantage. Trusted with a penalty kick, City’s all-time leading scorer decided that one of the final goals of his Etihad career would be a Panenka. It was a grave mistake.
The consequences of Aguero’s miss and City’s second-half collapse to goals from Hakim Ziyech and Marcos Alonso are not great. Guardiola must now wait to see if Manchester United drop points in their three league matches over the next five days. Given the strain of United’s condensed schedule and the standard of opposition, that is likely.
But this was an opportunity to become champions on the pitch, against a side that is likely to mount a serious challenge to their crown next season, and to strike a potential psychological blow against their opponents in Istanbul - perhaps - later this month. Instead, Thomas Tuchel and his players will take belief that they can win more than just this dress rehearsal.
Alonso’s stoppage-time winner consigned Guardiola to his first ever pair of back-to-back top-flight home defeats. The City manager felt aggrieved that, minutes earlier, his side were not given another opportunity to score from the spot when Raheem Sterling was bundled over by Kurt Zouma. It was a questionable call but, judging by Aguero’s earlier attempt, they might only have wasted it.
There were a total of 14 changes from the midweek semi-finals between the two sides, nine coming from City alone. Only Ederson and Ruben Dias survived the commanding win over Paris Saint-Germain, while Chelsea kept the likes of Mason Mount back while starting Billy Gilmour. Guardiola and Tuchel enjoyed a friendly chat out on the Etihad pitch before kick-off but the team sheets suggested they were each unwilling to show the other their hand.
Does it still count as a dress rehearsal if it’s mostly made up of the stand-ins? The sheer number of changes made for a first half that lacked intensity and passed without any real incident until its final minutes. Timo Werner did, at one point around the half-hour mark, have the ball in the back of the net but his frustrating inability to stay onside cost him and his conversion of a Reece James cross was correctly ruled out.
Both City and Chelsea’s success over the past six months has been built on a solid defence and safe possession play. That was the story of the first half until Andreas Christensen, under pressure from Gabriel Jesus, failed to defend Ruben Dias’ punt down the inside-right channel. With Christensen down on the turf in a heap, Jesus had a clear run into the box where he squared for Aguero, but the touch was heavy.
The chance appeared to have gone, Aguero’s lack of match sharpness costing him the chances to equal the Premier League record for the most goals for a single club, only for Sterling to come through the back of City’s all-time leading scorer and apply the necessary finish. There was a hint of embarrassment about his celebration, taking the ball of his team-mate’s toes in that way, but Aguero would soon have the chance to make amends.
When it came, he blew it. Only one man was going to take the penalty which resulted from Billy Gilmour clipping Jesus inside Chelsea’s box. Aguero has typically been a reliable penalty taker, often scoring low and hard to the goalkeeper’s right, yet as this is his farewell tour, he opted for a Panenka. He failed, miserably so. Mendy had time to correct the slight movement to his right, stand up and pat down Aguero’s pathetic attempt.
The half time whistle followed almost immediately. Aguero held out his hand to Mendy by way of saying sorry and his apology which was accepted. Guardiola, meanwhile, did not look best pleased. If he was not so determined to rest his other attacking options, Aguero might not have come back out for the second half. And much to Guardiola’s annoyance, that show of complacency was punished.
Chelsea’s equaliser began with Rodri, who has come on leaps and bounds this season, succumbing to bad old habits and being too easily dispossessed when under pressure in midfield. Cesar Azpilicueta broke away down the right and, after a brief exchange of passes inside, squared for Ziyech. From the edge of the 18-yard box, there were plenty of City defenders to shoot through but his attempt was placed perfectly, evading all the sky blue shirts in front of him and nestling in the bottom right-hand corner.
Tuchel’s side continued to threaten yet their timing was off. Werner, once again, had a goal disallowed for a preventable offside. Callum Hudson-Odoi was a little more unfortunate, with his kneecap straying beyond the last man before converting James’ cross. Then came the penalty shout against Zouma. Guardiola was incensed, both by the initial decision and the lack of any lengthy VAR review. His complaints fell on deaf ears.
As the three minutes of stoppage time were announced, it was clear that the champagne would stay on ice. There was still something to play for - an edge, perhaps, to take into the final - but Chelsea were the only side interested in seizing it. After Hudson-Odoi and Werner combined down the right, Alonso connected with the resulting low cross, slightly miscuing his strike but nevertheless looping the ball over Ederson. It was a goal that delayed the title, rather than having any bearing on its destination, but it could still prove to be significant.