Chelsea 1 Man City 3: Citizens run riot in dominant first half and move within four points of Premier League leaders

WITHIN 35 minutes there were suggestions that Chelsea would be writing to the Premier League demanding full disclosure as to why this match was not called off due to coronavirus.

And that Everton, who had been demanding such clarity after their fixture with Manchester City was postponed on Monday, might now keep schtum about the matter.

Because Pep Guardiola’s team – even with six senior players missing after positive Covid tests – are back to their brutally majestic best.

And while the word ‘crisis’ sounds flippant when used in a purely footballing sense right now, Frank Lampard’s future as Chelsea boss is under severe scrutiny.

It is not just that Chelsea have plunged to eighth in the table after a fourth defeat in six matches.

It was the manner in which City ripped Lampard’s team apart with three goals in 16 devastating first-half minutes which begs questions of their manager – playing legend or not.

City are unbeaten in 11 matches in all competitions but, until this masterclass, they had not scaled the heights of their relentless back-to-back title campaigns of 2018 and 2019.

There had been doubts as to whether this match would even go ahead, given the grave nature of City’s Covid outbreak.

So what a time for Pep’s men to conjure their finest performance of the season and emasculate a team Roman Abramovich had lavished £220million upon last summer.

Those goals, from Ilkay Gungogan, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne, bore the hallmarks of classic Pepness – eye-candy football, with the ingredients of speed, conviction and pure unadulterated cheek.

It could easily have been worse for Chelsea, whose absentee owner Abramovich is having his infamously-short patience levels tested.

Lampard switched Timo Werner to centre-forward, in a move many Chelsea supporters had wanted, yet it made no difference.

Thiago Silva, the Brazilian A-lister brought to add street wisdom to Chelsea’s defence, looked all of his 36 years.

N’Golo Kante, the former Footballer of the Year, was frequently chasing Raheem Sterling’s shadow.

It was a clash of England’s financial titans which turned into an epic mismatch and it proved that City – four points behind Liverpool and Manchester United, with a game in hand – are back in the thick of an intriguing title race.

Yet should this match have been staged? Should any matches go ahead while Covid infects the nation, and football itself, in record numbers?

Well, attending Premier League matches has felt strange since Project Restart in June but turning up to watch a key fixture involving a club reeling from several positive cases, felt weirder than ever.

City had called off Monday’s visit to Everton, with Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus confirmed as positive cases.

And by the time they arrived in West London, that figure had reached six confirmed, and reportedly eight overall.

Ederson and Eric Garcia have tested positive, while, among senior pros, Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake were absent from the 20-man squad – though Benjamin Mendy was on the bench despite breaching Covid regulations by hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner party.

Yet such is the strength of City’s squad that, before a ball was kicked, you would hardly have referred to this as a weak side – not with Mendy, Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez and Fernandinho all on the bench.

American international keeper Zack Steffen made his Premier League debut in place of Ederson and within five minutes he was booked for handling a Rodri back-pass.

Steffen made the error inside the box, ref Anthony Taylor awarded the free-kick outside the area, though Hakim Ziyech ploughed his dead-ball effort into the wall.

These two ‘Oil Firm’ clubs had claimed the title in seven of the last 11 seasons yet both were attempting to make up ground on the historic elite of Liverpool and United.

Chelsea actually made the snappier start but City created the first clear opening – Joao Cancello feeding De Bruyne, operating as a false nine, who dragged his shot wide of the far post.

City did not have to wait long for a breakthrough, though, Gundogan accepting Foden’s lay-off, swivelling past Thiago and tucking into the corner.

Guardiola’s men had not been their usual irresistible attacking force in the early stages of this campaign, but this was vintage City – such speed of thought and movement.

With Chelsea being pulled apart at will, City were two-up three minutes later, thanks to a second gem.

Another swift passing move climaxed with De Bruyne squaring for Foden to finish at the near post with a subtle flick of the boot.

It was only Foden’s second Premier League start since mid-October, Guardiola’s reluctance to use him often puzzling, but the Englishman had responded with an assist and a goal with 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

The third was embarrassing for Chelsea, as they were caught, legs akimbo, from their own attacking free-kick – De Bruyne’s header sending Sterling racing clear with only Kante for company.

Sterling rounded Mendy, checked and curled a shot against the far post, De Bruyne reacting quickest to take a touch and side-foot home the rebound.

It almost seemed as if City were taking the pee when Gundogan squandered another clear opening with an over-elaborate effort.

Early in the second half, Mendy made a magnificent point-black save from a Rodri header.

Lampard sent on Billy Gilmour and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who netted an injury-time consolation.

But City were already home and hosed.

Guardiola’s boys are back. Not even the effects of a sweeping pandemic can stop them.

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