The Belgian curled a stunning effort into the bottom corner from 25-yards in the 70th minute to send City 13 points clear of the second-placed Blues as we recorded our 12th consecutive win in the competition.
It sealed a deserved victory for Pep Guardiola’s men, who controlled a tight contest throughout and might have won by more but for a brilliant save from Kepa, who denied Jack Grealish with his thigh in the first half.
Romelu Lukaku forced a superb save from Ederson with the scores goalless, but the Belgian striker cut an isolated figure for much of the afternoon as Chelsea set up to contain and rarely troubled the hosts on the counter-attack.
Thomas Tuchel’s men stoic defended frustrated the defending champions for long periods, but their efforts were undone by De Bruyne’s brilliance as he rode N’Golo Kante’s tackled before arcing a sumptuous strike beyond Kepa to provide a significant boost to our Premier League title aspirations.
Guardiola’s meetings with Tuchel often produce an intriguing tactical battle and this encounter was no different as the visitors were content to concede territory and possession at the Etihad Stadium.
City played with our trademark fluidity but clear-cut chances were scarce before De Bruyne’s match-winner, as Chelsea’s stubborn defence limited our threat in the final third.
John Stones sent a header straight at Kepa and De Bruyne did the same with a shot from tight angle in a first half in which Grealish would have opened the scoring but for the Spaniard’s crucial stop after Mateo Kovacic was dispossessed on the edge of his area.
Ederson was a spectator for much of the opening 45-minutes, with Chelsea’s best opportunity going to waste when Lukaku elected to pass to the offside Hakim Ziyech instead of taking the shot on himself.
The visitors carried more of a threat after the break, when Ederson made a crucial intervention to deny Lukaku’s curling strike after he was released by Kovacic’s slide rule pass.
Marcos Alonso rasped a fierce drive just over the bar, too, but City were still the on the front foot and De Bruyne called Kepa into action again with a 25-yard free-kick that the Spaniard turned away.
The Belgian, however, would not be denied and our superiority was rewarded when he curled home, with City remaining in control to see out the game and claim a crucial three points.
Twelve months ago, City’s 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge was a decisive moment in our title triumph and, if Guardiola’s side are to go on and repeat that success this season, this win at the expense of a rival, may prove to be equally as important.
De Bruyne’s brilliance rightly earned him the Man of the Match award, but Raheem Sterling was one of the impressive players on the pitch as he continued the form which saw him named Premier League Player of the Month for December.
City’s No.7 was the games most dangerous player, and his pace and trickery ensured he was a constant thorn in the side of Alonso down the right flank.
Time and time again he beat his opposite number and he came close to opening the scoring himself with an angled drive which flashed just wide of Kepa’s left hand post.
Pep Guardiola: players are incredible
"Absolutely [it's a big victory]. The way we played, everything we have done.
"We cannot forget the team we played. European champion, and on the touchline you realise how incredible they are.
"They wait for the transition to punish us. The defended well. We created enough chances to win.
"We had the intention to win the game from minute one. The team are incredible."
Man of the Match: Kevin De Bruyne
After 70 minutes of goalless action and with Chelsea's well-organised defence continuing to keep City at bay, it felt as if it would take something special to break the deadlock.
De Bruyne duly obliged to reinforce his status as a world class match-winner.
It was a brilliant goal, from a brilliant player and worthy of winning what at this stage, feels like the most significant victory of City's season.
- De Bruyne has now scored five goals against Chelsea in the Premier League; the most by any former Blues player, who has represented them in the competition.
- The 30-year-old has scored 21 Premier League goals from outside the box, which is more than other player since his first season at City (2015-16). It is the joint-most in City's history, alongside Sergio Aguero.
What it means
We have won each of our last 12 Premier League games, the ninth time a run of 12+ victories has been achieved in the competitions and the fourth time we have managed to do so.
The win extends our lead at the top of the table to 13 points, though Liverpool can cut that to 11 points with victory over Brentford, which would see them leapfrog Chelsea into second place.
SUBS: Steffen, Dias, Fernandinho, Mbete, McAtee, Lavia, Wilson-Esbrand.
CHELSEA: Kepa, Azpilicueta (c), Thiago Silva, Rudiger, Sarr, Alonso (Mount 81’), Kante, Kovacic, Ziyech (Hudson-Odoi 69’), Pulisic (Werner 69’), Lukaku.
SUBS: Bettinelli, Barkley, Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek, Saul, Havertz.
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