For Manchester City, there was a glimpse of the unfamiliar before the almost automatic victory. The Carabao Cup feels Pep Guardiola’s personal fiefdom, to such an extent that the sole tie he has lost in the last five years came on penalties, and he started his bid for a record fifth victory by brushing aside last season’s finalists, courtesy of a storming start to the second half.
The element of novelty came before an inspired Riyad Mahrez helped them score twice in six minutes. Kalvin Phillips’ City career had consisted of a mere 14 minutes on the pitch; while a summer signing had proved decisive, it was Erling Haaland, not him. But his return after eight weeks on the sidelines with a shoulder injury, Phillips completed 41 minutes with no alarms. It was a well-timed appearance, some 17 hours before Gareth Southgate announces England’s World Cup squad. Phillips will probably be in it.
On a night of two managerial winners, there was a loser: Graham Potter has only taken two points from his last four league games and one chance of silverware is gone already. Thomas Tuchel steered Chelsea to Wembley last season but Potter’s team fell at the first hurdle, after they were overwhelmed at the start of the second half. Perhaps, in a meeting diminished by the fixture list, with their Premier and Champions League commitments meaning the managers made seven and eight changes respectively, the lesson from an exercise in experimentation was that City have a higher calibre of squad player.
Certainly Mahrez, who has only made four Premier League starts this season, showed he can look irresistible. He was City’s top scorer last year and just his fourth goal of the current campaign came with a little assistance. Edouard Mendy was partly culpable, standing motionless as Mahrez’s free kick flew past him. Kalidou Koulibaly, the giant in the wall who strangely didn’t jump, was also at fault, but the Algerian exacted elegant retribution after he was scythed down by Trevoh Chalobah, scoring from the resulting set-piece.
Then Mahrez collected Alvarez’s diagonal ball, jinked away from Marc Cucurella and unleased a shot that Mendy could only parry. Alvarez tucked in the rebound for his third goal in as many games.
It came in a period when City were rampant and when Cole Palmer was denied by Mendy. The goalkeeper’s previous experience of this competition was to be substituted in the final so Kepa Arrizabalaga could fail to save any of Liverpool’s penalties and then miss his own. The Senegalese had been in defiant mood as City’s onslaught began, making two saves in as many minutes from Mendy to frustrate Jack Grealish. A curler and a low half-volley were repelled, with Grealish, who had also been thwarted by the goalkeeper before the break, left grinning in disbelief. He could soon celebrate as Mahrez forged a breakthrough whereas Chelsea again found goals elusive against English opposition.
They had mustered a lone, tame shot on target against Arsenal and Potter, whose switch to 3-4-3 felt dictated by the personnel who were available but not exhausted, turned to his second-string attack. They found City’s reserve goalkeeper showing his obduracy.
Christian Pulisic drew two fine first-half saves from Stefan Ortega, the first a scuffed, slow-motion attempt from a cross by Hakim Ziyech, something of a forgotten man under Potter, the second a better effort following a driving run. Ortega’s resistance included a terrific stop when the American was offside: it was academic, but impressive nonetheless.
Chelsea’s youngest player could also testify to his excellence. Lewis Hall was their brightest performer, the 18-year-old marking just his second start with a couple of bold solo runs as he surged forward from left wing-back; with better finishing, he could have struck twice but instead was denied by the excellent Ortega, first after skipping past Rico Lewis, another born in 2004, and then as he sought to halve the deficit.
His name was sung by Chelsea’s fans and Potter’s team rallied after a quadruple substitution strengthened the side. Pulisic, who ended up at wing-back, had a goal disallowed after Sergio Gomez somehow contrived to head against his own post.
But on the night when Phillips returned to action, there was a different kind of comeback, with Raheem Sterling a substitute against the club where he made 339 appearances, scored 131 goals and won the Carabao Cup four times. Many at the Etihad Stadium gave him a standing ovation. They could afford to. Mahrez’s excellence meant City had scarcely needed the departed Sterling.