It was City’s first major test of the season. We went into the game top of the table after taking 16 points from a possible 18, scoring 21 goals in the process, but Chelsea were the defending champions who had beaten City twice en route to their title the previous campaign. The 3-1 defeat at the Etihad had been particularly chastening for City, who had dominated the early stages and should have gone 2-0 up when Kevin De Bruyne hit the bar from close range. It proved a pivotal moment. City went on to be ruthlessly unpicked by Chelsea’s quality in attack and were well beaten. The aftermath had seen us criticised, with Pep Guardiola’s philosophy under intense scrutiny.
But the mood in the camp heading into this one was superb. We were top of the league after six games and winning plaudits for the expressive, expansive football we were producing. We had beaten Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on the Tuesday, and the training sessions since then had been good. Guardiola and his staff were pleased with the level and there was growing belief among the squad, but injuries to Sergio Aguero and left-back Benjamin Mendy, signed two months previously and a player the Club’s management had high expectations of, were a cruel blow.
On Friday morning, the team gathered for breakfast at the CFA, before a 10-minute briefing ahead of an 11am training session used by Guardiola to go through the finer tactical elements of the game task that lay ahead. The players had lunch together before retiring to the hotel rooms at CFA to rest.
At 3.25pm, they departed the CFA and headed the Piccadilly station, where a train carrying the players, management, backroom team and support staff would depart at 3.55pm. Everything ran like clockwork, continuing the smooth preparations that had defined the previous few days.
The atmosphere was relaxed, with most players sat in quiet contemplation of a vitally important game. There was a collective understanding this was a significant fixture; an opportunity to send a message to our rivals that our early-season form would not wane in the same way it had done 12 months earlier. City under Guardiola were now the real deal and it was time to really lay a marker down.
At 6.50pm, the team checked into the Royal Garden Hotel on Kensington High Street. They had enough time to unpack, before gathering for a team meeting at 7.30pm. Guardiola and his staff went through some set piece routines, an area they felt City could have some joy. In games against your rivals, where the margins are so slender, any advantage is welcome, and Guardiola, aided chiefly by Mikel Arteta, had developed some ideas of how we could exploit Chelsea’s backline from corners and free-kicks.
Dinner was served at 8pm, with City’s first-team chefs supplying a range of options. There was a salad bar, omelette station, chargrilled chicken, miso salmon, pan fried turbot and grilled calamari, as well grains, pulses, pasta and a wide selection of vegetables. The appointment of Silvia Tremoleda, who had worked with Guardiola at Barcelona, earlier in the year had underlined the importance the City boss places on nutrition. What goes into the players bodies fuels their matchday performance and no risks are taken. It’s all part of Guardiola’s meticulous preparation.
The players spent the remainder of the evening together watching Girona, a fellow City Football Group club, play Celta Vigo in LaLiga. It was a frantic 3-3 draw in which the pendulum swung numerous times. Hopefully, some of the players joked, the game tomorrow would be a less stressful affair.
Breakfast was served between 9.30-10am the following morning, and afterwards the players had four hours downtime. The 5.30pm kick off may give fans extra time for their pre-match rituals, but for the players it’s a difficult schedule that allows more opportunity for tension to build. Club staff say the key to these matches is minimising nerves and giving the squad every opportunity to relax.
Lunch was served at 2pm, before a final team briefing at the hotel. The message from the backroom staff was clear: the preparation over the previous three days had been close to perfect; now was the time to produce on the pitch.
But there was time for one more crucial intervention.
Mendy, out in Barcelona receiving treatment for his knee injury from Dr Ramon Cugat, had sent a member of City’s staff a video message of support and told him to keep it quiet until close to kick off. It was played at the meeting, a move which turned out to be a masterstroke, lightening the mood and relinquishing some of the tension that had built up during the day. Mendy, an infectious, effusive character, was still having an effect on the team’s morale 700 miles away. Everyone came out of the meeting laughing, relaxed and feeling good.
The team left the hotel and made the short journey to the stadium, arriving 75 minutes before kick-off. Guardiola, unlike his predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, likes to reach the ground as late as possible in order to minimise the time the players are waiting. A quick change, warm-ups and then back to the dressing room for a final team talk and then it's game time.
For Chelsea, Eden Hazard, their major creative force and one of the Premier League finest individual players, was fit again having missed the opening weeks of the campaign. It was a huge boost for the champions. He is a player so difficult to stop, lightening quick on the ball and able to beat players with ease.
But City were imperious.
We dominated the game from start to finish, the 1-0 scoreline flattering the home side. City may not have created as many clear-cut chances as we would have liked, but it was us who dictated play. It would be difficult to find a more one-sided game between two of the Premier League’s proverbial ‘Top Six,’ and our place at the top of the table was maintained.
The winning goal, scored by De Bruyne, was a moment of pure brilliance. Gabriel Jesus laid the ball back into his path and, 20 yards out, he took one touch with his right before unleashing an unstoppable drive with his weaker left into the top corner past Thibaut Courtois.
The frenzied celebrations in the corner in front of the travelling City fans spoke volumes.
We are so happy,” Guardiola said afterwards. “The most important thing is to win the game but the way we played, especially in the second half, was pleasing.
"We had control and in the second half we adjusted our possession and the way we attacked. They could not play and had to do long balls."
In the dressing room after the game, the players were jubilant. Some sat staring in delight, others cheered and sang. The statement they had so badly wanted to make had been emphatically delivered. This side had title-winning qualities.
Once the dressing-room celebrations died down, the team boarded the coach and headed for Luton airport in buoyant mood. Traffic on the roads delayed their journey, but nothing could dampen spirits. The players were singing, joking and laughing throughout. Belief was visibly growing.
“That, I think, was the first day we believe in ourselves, me included, to say, okay, we can go away on the biggest stage and win,” Guardiola told me during a mid-season break in Abu Dhabi back in March. “The season before, the games against the big contenders….the results were poor.
“The way we played against Chelsea, we could have won 2-0 or 3-0. That was so important for all of us. We knew now we were able to go away and make a good performance.”
There many significant moments on the way to our record-breaking title win that saw us collect 100 points and redefine what it means to win the title comfortably. But it was arguably this day that had the most significant effect on the squad's collective belief.
Chelsea 0-1 City: Saturday 30 September, 2017
Chelsea XI: Courtois, Rudiger, Christensen, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Kante, Bakayoko, Fabregas, Alonso, Hazard, Morata
Subs: Caballero, Pedro, Moses, Kenedy, Zappacosta, Willian, Batshuayi
Referee: Martin Atkinson (W Yorkshire)