- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2018

MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Chelsea’s compact defensive block lurched from side to side, the players mentally as much as physically drained and seemingly hypnotized by the passing patterns being weaved by Manchester City in front of them.

It was the 75th minute, Chelsea was down 1-0 in one of its biggest games of the season, and the team was being toyed with.

At one stage, City midfielder David Silva had control of the ball and stood motionless near the touchline. Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas sidled up to him but didn’t put in a tackle. Silva waited a few seconds and passed the ball back to a teammate.

This was no mutiny from Chelsea - the players, in fact, were carrying out their coach’s instructions to the letter - but a passive acceptance of its place below City in English soccer’s realigned hierarchy this season.

“We could have played on for three hours,” said Eden Hazard, who had the unenviable role as Chelsea’s lone striker in the 1-0 loss at City on Sunday, “and I wouldn’t touch a ball.”

Rewind to December 2016, Chelsea was also down 1-0 at Etihad Stadium after an hour and being overrun by City. Yet the team had the belief to fight back with three goals in the final 30 minutes to win 3-1, go top of the standings by three points, and continue its march to the title.

Fifteen months later, it’s a very different Chelsea that is 25 points behind City and on course to miss out on qualifying for the Champions League.

No wonder Antonio Conte, such a bubbly, passionate and explosive manager on the touchline, looked so glum after a match that amounted to little more than a damage-limitation exercise.

“I think they showed the difference between them and us in this moment,” the Chelsea manager said, before adding: “I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0.”

Conte arrived at Chelsea promising to turn the side from a “small flame … into a blazing inferno.” He managed to do that last season, but the fire appears to have gone out.

How else can you explain the timidity of Chelsea’s display on Sunday? Conte set the team up that way, so he has to take the blame.

“It is a good question,” said Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud, when asked if the team could have been more ambitious. “The coach made his tactics. We tried to respect it.”

As dress rehearsals go, it was complete failure.

Chelsea is expected to have the same approach when it travels to Camp Nou to face Barcelona in the Champions League. The score was 1-1 in the first leg, when Chelsea gave up 75 percent possession at Stamford Bridge.

The stats could even be more one-sided in the return game, just like on Sunday. City completed 902 passes, more than any team has managed in a Premier League game since statistics company Opta became the league’s official data partner in 2003.

For Chelsea, it was death by nearly a thousand passes.

“When you leave the pitch, you have the impression that you’ve ran but that you haven’t played a game of football,” Hazard said. “That’s a pity.”

Many of City’s opponents know the feeling.

Such is City’s mastery of both passing and pressing that its rivals are suffocated into submission. The rare times that Chelsea’s players got the ball on Sunday, they didn’t know what to do with it and, under pressure, gave it away cheaply.

Hazard was throwing his arms up in disgust before the end of the first half, as another long ball toward him flew over his head.

City, the Premier League’s champion-in-waiting, had Chelsea beaten before a ball was even kicked. That’s a worry not just for Conte but for the rest of English soccer.


More AP Premier League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/PremierLeague


Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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