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Man City vs Chelsea: Why this could be the start of English football's next big rivalry

Games Indigo | Marcos Alonso's break-out at the Etihad on Saturday will have no bearing on the goal of this season's Premier League title. It could perhaps have an impact if Chelsea and Manchester City meet again in 19 days, in Istanbul or elsewhere, to contest the Champions League final. But what else could she say about the upcoming title races?

Man City vs Chelsea: Why this could be the start of English football's next big rivalry

That was one of the more interesting questions to come out of Chelsea’s late and largely inconsequential 2-1 win, which delayed City’s coronation as champions but did not make it any less likely. This was a game Pep Guardiola could afford to lose. Still, for the second time in the space of a month, after victory in the FA Cup semi-finals a few weeks ago, Thomas Tuchel had got the better of him.

Like the win at Wembley, Saturday’s victory came with caveats. City named a rotated line-up in both games, for example, and the drop-off in performance between Guardiola’s first and second strings must be starting to worry him. For a manager fond of rotation, he now has a clear first-choice line-up. Tuchel’s Chelsea is yet to face City’s strongest XI. Injury-permitting, they will in the final.

But whatever happens in Istanbul, Guardiola is said to have been impressed by the transformation under Tuchel in recent months, and if that trilogy ends with another Chelsea win and a clean sweep for the former Paris Saint-Germain head coach, it will only lend credentials to the argument that City's most important national challenge will come from Stamford Bridge next season.

Results suggest as much. Tuchel’s league record since his January appointment reads 10 wins, five draws, and a solitary defeat while down to 10 men against West Bromwich Albion. Chelsea’s 35 points from those 16 matches average out to 2.19-per-game – a better record than 10 previous Premier League title winners, though admittedly some way short of the standard set by City, Liverpool, and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in recent years.

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Still, that's a better record than second-placed Manchester United's 2.03 points per game since the start of the campaign, and not far from City's season-long pace of 2.29. In other words, it's a promising start for Tuchel and a strong platform that goes into his first full season. And in the case of Chelsea, he is at a club that has the resources to build on, manage.

While City’s other rivals with different, more traditional ownership models scramble around to fund their summer spending after a season without fans in stadiums, Roman Abramovich provides a more reliable source of financing. The same is true of City and its ownership model, of course. Abramovich and Abu Dhabi are estimated to have provided a combined £1.7bn of financing to their respective clubs over the past decade, which is the most of any Premier League owners by far.

It is no coincidence, either, that of the six top-flight clubs to attempt to break away and join the Super League, Chelsea and City were the last ones in and first ones out. While guaranteed revenues year after year were clearly an attractive proposition to their owners, the Super League was not viewed as the essential, post-Covid reform that it was to Manchester United, Liverpool, and the other clubs involved, who are more dependent on the income they earn from playing in the Champions League.

United may dispute that, and the wider point about Chelsea being City’s next great challengers after a season of steady improvement under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but while there are several key areas of their squad which require work over the summer, that is not necessarily the case at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool, meanwhile, should recover and recuperate once their injuries have cleared up but Jurgen Klopp’s squad has a core of players at the tail-end of their prime and will soon need to be rebuilt.

And then there is the fact that both City and Chelsea seem to have mastered the art of pandemic football, with Guardiola and Tuchel both adopting a style prioritizing control through slow, patient possession while maintaining the fitness of their players. It's not always a big spectacle, as anyone who has watched the FA Cup semi-final or the first half on Saturday can attest, but it gives them a stranglehold on almost every game they play, making them defensively tough and dominant.

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Although English football seems to be emerging from the worst of the pandemic, the impact of Covid will still be felt next season, even if the crowds are back in the stands and a slightly less congested game plan. Until the end of next season, the participants in the European Championship will have played the best part of two years of football without playing many breaks. 

From the Premier League's elite, City and Chelsea have shown that they can survive and thrive in this strange new reality. Perhaps we will witness the beginning of the next top rivalry of the top flight.