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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Champions Chelsea face leaders Manchester City in what is expected to be a feisty game

When City and Chelsea clash, red cards often follow and goals invariably do. And, as last season shows, the consequences can be considerable.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero received a red card against Chelsea last season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero received a red card against Chelsea last season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

It probably ranked as the second most important moment of last season’s title race. The turning point, obscured at the time but soon acclaimed as a masterstroke, was Antonio Conte’s switch to 3-4-2-1 in the second half of Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal.

Yet two months later came another pivotal moment. Manchester City were leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola had played a back three, pitting wingers against Chelsea’s wing-backs. His ultra-aggressive tactics were working. Jesus Navas crossed. Kevin de Bruyne was four yards out. He had an open goal. He hit the bar.

Three minutes later, Diego Costa levelled. Chelsea counter-attacked their way to victory. City finished with nine men. Fast forward another five months and Chelsea beat City again. “Absolutely [we were better],” Guardiola said. “But they got six points and we got zero.”

It made Conte the only manager to do a league double over the Catalan in a season. It also explained why he won the Premier League title.

Now champions host league leaders on Saturday. Each faces a test.

In Chelsea’s case, it is an examination of their powers of recovery. “To have only one day to prepare for this type of game is not right,” said Conte, aggrieved it is not being played on Sunday.

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For City, it is a question if they have acquired the streetwise streak their conquerors showed last season. “In the boxes, they are better than us. They are a master of counter-attacks,” Guardiola said in April.

“Chelsea were just ruthless," Ilkay Gundogan added this week. "They scored and punished us and we made too many mistakes.”

City’s errors have been fewer so far this season. They have performed better in both penalty areas. Ederson has looked an upgrade on Claudio Bravo in goal.

It is no surprise that Sergio Aguero has proved prolific, but they have four players – the Argentine, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling – with at least five goals already. So many, indeed, that one will be benched. They have scored 29 goals in all competitions and conceded only three.

In September, the aggregate score is a still more impressive 24-1. In the Premier League, it is 16-0. City have become the first team in the division’s history to score at least five times in three successive matches.

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John McAuley: Aguero has earned 'legend' status at Manchester City

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Yet Chelsea’s excellence is apparent less in statistical distinctions than the calibre of the teams they have defeated since their shaky start.

Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Leicester City are respectively the runners-up, huge spenders and recent champions. They overcame Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in an illustration of the counter-attacking prowess City witnessed last season.

Conte showed his tactical prowess and Chelsea their resolve after trailing.

His Madrid move to 3-5-2 offers one of the subplots: will he deploy the same gameplan again? Will Guardiola revive last year’s approach and play three at the back against Chelsea? A focus on the forwards is guaranteed, with Aguero and Alvaro Morata two of the division’s joint top scorers and the Argentine needing a solitary goal to equal Eric Brook’s 78-year-old City record.

Their suppliers offer a similar fascination. David Silva, with six assists, is officially the most creative player in the league. Eden Hazard, who was brilliant against Atletico, should make a first league start of the campaign.

It is also a question of how each copes without defensive absentees. City will definitely be without Benjamin Mendy and possibly without Vincent Kompany. Chelsea cannot call upon David Luiz, suspended for his sending off against Arsenal and the victim of the challenge that led to Aguero’s expulsion last year.

When City and Chelsea clash, red cards often follow and goals invariably do. And, as last season shows, the consequences can be considerable.