Chelsea is only three points behind City but has played two games more.
Manchester City left Chelsea in disarray by sweeping to a 3-1 victory on Sunday with a ruthless attacking display that consigned Frank Lampard’s team to a fourth loss in its past six Premier League games.
İlkay Gündoğan, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne scored in a devastating 16-minute first-half spell as City rose to fifth in the standings despite coronavirus cases depleting the squad.
Chelsea is only three points behind City but has played two games more and the manner of this defeat will be alarming to notoriously impatient owner Roman Abramovich.
“Everyone a month ago was saying we can win the league,” Lampard said. “I was pretty sure in the fact that where we’re at, in terms of a rebuild, the ban, new players in the team, the youth, that there were periods of pain we were going to go through as a club and individuals. It was a painful first half for the players.”
The absence of any crowd due to coronavirus restrictions spared Lampard from any negativity from his own fans at least.
City had been missing five players due to coronavirus infections and there was off-field tumult in the buildup to the game caused by defender Benjamin Mendy breaching pandemic restrictions on inter-household mixing by holding a New Year’s Eve party.
With Ederson in isolation recovering from COVID-19, goalkeeper Zack Steffen started his first Premier League game. It was a nervy start for the 25-year-old American, earning a booking for handling outside the penalty area after five minutes.
But thanks to City’s scintillating forays forward and Chelsea’s attacking deficiencies, Steffen wasn’t tested.
Instead it was opposite number Edouard Mendy picking the ball out of his net three times.
In the 18th minute, Foden received a pass from De Bruyne and teed up Gündoğan on the turn to net his third goal in four games.
City was in devastating form, orchestrated as so often by De Bruyne with less than three minutes between the opening two goals.
An initial cross from the Belgium playmaker was intercepted by Thiago Silva, but he regained the ball to set up Foden for the second. It was a slick final touch from Foden that allowed him to beat Mendy at his near post.
“We conceded two really poor goals back to back in the game,” Lampard said. “I felt it knocked us, and that we didn’t react as well as I’d want. Serious lessons in the first half. Good character in the second half but the game was done.”
The third was started and completed by De Bruyne. He headed to Sterling to launch a breakaway down half the length of the pitch unchallenged before hitting the goal frame with a shot. By that time, De Bruyne had arrived to meet the rebound in the 34th minute, scoring on the day the playmaker was deployed as the central striker.
“A little bizarre in the beginning — I’ve done it a couple of times in my career,” he said. “Obviously there are a lot of strikers, forward players who are out. The coach asked me to do this job so I tried to do it as best as possible, and it is good we won in this way.”
Only Mendy’s quick reaction in the Chelsea goal prevented a close-range header from Rodri going into the top corner at the start of the second half.
Rarely has City been so untroubled in a game against Chelsea, which endured another disappointing game in front of goal from striker Timo Werner.
There was consolation in stoppage time with Callum Hudson-Odoi netting from Kai Havertz’s cross.