While Man City cope without Aguero, Chelsea struggle in Morata's absence
LONDON --Nobody was talking about Sergio Aguero after Manchester City overcame the loss of the injured forward to claim a 1-0 victory at Chelsea, but you can bet that Alvaro Morata was weighing heavily on the minds of everyone associated with the Stamford Bridge club after he suffered a hamstring injury that forced him off before half-time.
Perhaps, in that one moment, the difference between City and Chelsea's title prospects was summed up; Morata, who scored six times in his first six Premier League games, limped off the pitch, clutching the back of his left leg, 35 minutes into his seventh.
One team -- City -- was able to shrug off the loss of their top scorer and win convincingly while the other -- Chelsea -- became toothless and predictable as soon as their prolific No. 9 withdrew from the action.
Time will tell how long Chelsea will be without Morata, and the forthcoming international break will ensure the immediate blow is softened, but recent hamstring injuries suffered by Manchester United's Paul Pogba and Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele have led to both facing lengthy spells on the sidelines, so the worst-case scenario is clear for Antonio Conte.
"I hope it is not a serious injury for Morata," said the Chelsea manager. "It is his hamstring, but we don't know if it is a serious problem."
Chelsea simply have no reliable backup. They failed to complete a move for Fernando Llorente on transfer deadline day, with the Swansea forward instead opting to sign for Tottenham. Meanwhile, Michy Batshuayi, the goal-scoring hero late in the Champions League win at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, is clearly not rated by Conte -- beyond a late, impact sub role -- judging by the manager's decision to replace Morata will Brazilian midfielder Willian.
Having allowed Diego Costa to leave for Atletico, Chelsea now have a real problem if Morata is sidelined for any length of time. Batshuayi isn't good enough to replace him, so Conte must instead use Eden Hazard or Pedro Rodriguez in a central role and hope for the best.
Those are not the options of a team with realistic hopes of winning the Premier League title, a reality hammered home by the options Pep Guardiola has at City following the car accident in Amsterdam on Thursday that left Aguero out of action with a broken rib.
The Argentine striker has been in a prolific form this season with six league goals but, without him, Guardiola simply played Gabriel Jesus as a lone forward, with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling supporting from the flanks.
Further back, City had David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter of whom won the game against his former club with a stunning second-half strike. Guardiola also had attacking cover on the bench; Bernardo Silva and Yaya Toure are both capable of playing in advanced positions.
Imagine how formidable City would have been had they been able to get a deal for Alexis Sanchez over the line in August? There might be times when the loss of Aguero will hurt, but if they can cope so easily without their star striker against a side like Chelsea, it will take a very good team to stop them.
Chelsea's over-reliance on Morata, meanwhile, is striking. Not only does the summer signing from Real Madrid top their scoring charts, he is also crucial to the way Conte's team play: His link-play with Hazard, as the focal point of the attack, is a key element to Chelsea's attacking approach.
But Chelsea are not alone when it comes to relying so heavily on one player for goals. Romelu Lukaku has scored seven league goals for Manchester United this season after his strike against Crystal Palace on Saturday, while Harry Kane has six after his double at Huddersfield. The nightmare scenario for United and Spurs is the loss of their star man.
United could turn to Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial if Lukaku was to miss a run of games, but while both have an eye for goal, they have yet to show they can score consistently. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will bolster Jose Mourinho's attacking options in the New Year but, if Lukaku was to be injured before then, United would be in trouble.
The same applies to Spurs. Llorente is a proven goal scorer at the highest level, but not in the same prolific sense as Kane, and the veteran Spaniard still has to settle at the club. But at least Mauricio Pochettino has alternatives; it is difficult to look at the Chelsea squad and find similar reassurance.
Meanwhile, City have so many options that even the loss of Aguero is unlikely to knock them off their stride. And, when this title race is ultimately decided, it is likely to be the club with the greatest attacking depth that comes out on top.
The current top four -- City, United, Spurs and Chelsea -- all have world-class forwards capable of firing a team to the title, but City's strength -- and advantage -- is that they have more than one.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_