Kevin De Bruyne did his best to insist all parties had moved on and, in truth, it was hardly an opportune moment to reveal any lingering bitterness. After all it was barely an hour since he had rasped in a glorious winning goal for the current league leaders at the reigning champions and, back in the stadium’s media room, Pep Guardiola was still busy lauding the Belgian’s natural talent and eager work rate, declaring him one of the team’s “captains” who can “do absolutely everything”.
Yet there had to be some mention of that stunted spell as a Chelsea player, a period that yielded as many loans away as Premier League starts – two – before a sale to Wolfsburg in 2014 from which he has never looked back. The sight of De Bruyne dictating occasions such as that on Saturday will always prompt thoughts of what might have been in a corner of south-west London. “But I’ve no regrets over anything that happened,” the playmaker said. “I don’t think they have regrets: they’ve won two league titles since I’ve been gone, so they’ve done fairly well. That’s the way it goes, it’s a business. At that point it was a good decision for me to go and maybe for them it was also good to let me go. There’s no bad feeling at all. It’s just part of life and you need to grow up.”
The 26-year-old did that back in Germany and is flourishing on his second coming to this division. There is arguably no more complete player in the Premier League at present, a midfielder with vision and drive, touch and energy, invention and industry. It had been the Belgian who collected from Nicolás Otamendi, exchanged passes with Gabriel Jesus and, with this contest still on edge for all Manchester City’s dominance of the ball, wriggled into space before ripping that shot across Thibaut Courtois from the edge of the penalty area with his ‘weaker’ left foot. It was his first goal at Stamford Bridge and a reward that stated his team’s renewed intent this term.
Last year they had succumbed in this arena, as well as at White Hart Lane and Anfield. De Bruyne had missed an open goal against Chelsea back at the Etihad, a chance that, if taken, would have put the hosts 2-0 up in a match eventually surrendered 3-1. However, this year, with players better schooled in Guardiola’s high-energy press and brave enough to impose that game plan even on trips to the more daunting opponents, they look a different proposition.
“It’s the way we started to play last year but, obviously, you get some growing pains,” De Bruyne said. “If somebody makes a mistake, then it looks a little bit silly but it takes hard work. Don’t think it comes easy. It can be more difficult to do the pressing against [lesser] teams because you know they’re going to play the long balls, so the pressing has to be different and you have to manage the space.”
They coped impressively with Chelsea this time, for all that their hosts – perhaps jaded by midweek exertions at Atlético Madrid – were too timid in their own approach. This was possibly one of those rare occasions where Antonio Conte misread a situation or felt restricted in the options available to him. Yet the decisions to use César Azpilicueta at right wing-back and to replace the hamstrung Álvaro Morata with Willian rather than Michy Batshuayi, seemed uncharacteristically tentative, almost negative. It was N’Golo Kanté who mustered the most touches as an opponent in City’s penalty area, which smacked of a slightly awkward balance in a team built more to contain.
City’s reputation precedes them these days – as it probably should, given the manner in which they have overrun opponents this term – but the champions needed to take the initiative. “Let me give us credit for what we have done,” Guardiola said when asked if he was pleased that even a team as imposing as Chelsea had clearly been unnerved at the prospect of taking on his charges. “We did many, many good things. Every manager in the world has a plan and when it comes off – when it works the way we want them to play – well, that is why we are here.” This result sent out a message. City are intent on finishing this campaign without regrets.