So, Cole Palmer. How are your nerves? The question came in stoppage time, at the end of a breathless advert for the global pull of the Premier League. Manchester City led 4-3 but now the player that they sold to Chelsea in August stood over a penalty.
Palmer had joined the City academy at the age of eight. He started the season with goals for them in the Community Shield and the European Super Cup. Now it fell to him to derail the momentum they had built over a five-game winning sequence; to fire Chelsea’s season some more, too, after the win at Tottenham last Monday.
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The wait seemed to stretch for an eternity. But when Palmer stepped up he made no mistake, scoring for a fourth time in Chelsea colours; each of them nerveless conversions from the spot. Pep Guardiola had said the really big clubs did not care to whom they sold. Had he tempted fate?
Palmer was excellent here and so was another former City player, Raheem Sterling, who had scored for 2-1 at a point towards the end of the first half that came to feel like a lifetime ago. City thought they had nicked it when Rodri watched an 86th‑minute shot deflect savagely off Thiago Silva and fly into the opposite corner.
Erling Haaland scored two more to make it 49 in 47 league appearances for City, Manuel Akanji got the other and it looked set to be a tale of heartbreak for Mauricio Pochettino and Chelsea. The manager was close to combusting on a number of occasions, driven to distraction by the decisions of the referee, Anthony Taylor – a perennial villain in these parts. Pochettino boiled over spectacularly upon the full-time whistle, feeling there had been a big foul on Sterling by the City substitute Mateo Kovacic moments before it.
But, after Rúben Dias had dived in on another substitute, Armando Broja, to concede the last-gasp penalty, it was over to Palmer to put himself at the centre of the story. His goal celebration was muted, to say the least – in stark contrast to the mayhem breaking out around him. His insides churned.
What a game it was, the touch paper lit midway through the first half by a penalty award for City that was controversial – and not only because the visitors had played on while Chelsea had three players down. First Conor Gallagher pulled up after hurting himself in the act of closing down Dias and then, after City went up to the other end, Reece James collided with Moisés Caicedo as they went for a high ball. There was no obvious clash of heads.
When City pumped it back into the area, Haaland put his hands on Marc Cucurella, who responded in kind and watched the City striker go to ground. Taylor gave what had to be described as a soft spot-kick and Haaland converted with relish.
Chelsea’s response bristled with personality. They had brought the intensity at the outset, moving the ball quickly and smartly. Now they went up another notch. James led by example, driving from right-back; Gallagher was a non-stop source of energy. City celebrated when Ederson tipped over a James free‑kick. But Chelsea had the last laugh when Gallagher sent over the corner and Silva timed his run in front of Haaland to glance a brilliant header inside the far post.
Raheem Sterling scored against his former club to put Chelsea ahead in the first half. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images
Phil Foden shimmered with menace. He almost supplied Haaland with a cross after beating Cucurella and then, after stepping inside the same opponent, he blasted inches past the far post.
It was Chelsea who scored next, Sterling tapping home at the far post, although he had the presence of mind not to celebrate in front of the City fans after running past them. Palmer started the move, trying to play in James, who watched the ball break off Josko Gvardiol’s foot before firing over a low first‑time cross. Back came City. Haaland was denied by a fine Robert Sánchez save after slicing on to a Julián Álvarez pass and Pochettino was incandescent when his team switched off on a City short corner in first-half stoppage time. Bernardo Silva’s delivery was wicked but who had tracked Akanji’s run? Nobody.
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There was no let-up from City at the start of the second half. Not from Foden. And certainly not from Haaland. City’s third goal had its origins by the corner flag on their defensive left and was fired when Haaland rolled away from Caicedo’s attempted interception in the centre of the field. Foden waited for Álvarez to overlap, which he did at pace and there was Haaland sliding in on the cross to bundle home.
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City looked ready to pile on the pain. Their counters were sharp and threatening, although Jérémy Doku did err with a dive inside the area for which he was booked.
Chelsea revived, again. Palmer almost tricked through on the hour, beating three players but not Ederson and the next equaliser followed a spill by the City goalkeeper after Gallagher had unloaded. Nicolas Jackson took a touch on the rebound and guided into the net. Moments earlier, Ederson had needed lengthy treatment for a knock.
Who could land the knockout? The home crowd howled when Kyle Walker got away with a handball on the edge of his own area and then some more when the substitute Malo Gusto lifted a gilt-edged chance high after Sterling had robbed Rodri. So to Rodri at the other end. And then to Palmer. With practically the last action, Walker had a chance from a free‑kick after Sterling had scythed through Foden. He blasted high. A City winner would have been too much.