LONDON (AP) In the penultimate month of the season, Manchester City resembles a formidable team again. It's too late to challenge for the English Premier League title but well-timed for the pursuit of Champions League glory.
Sergio Aguero grabbed a hat trick against Chelsea on Saturday - the last coming from the penalty spot after goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was dismissed - as City completed a hat trick of league wins for the first time since August.
The 3-0 victory came against a toothless Chelsea side which has only one win in seven as it meekly surrenders the title. But City hadn't won at Stamford Bridge since 2010, and Manuel Pellegrini's team fortified its place in the top four for Champions League qualification.
Qualification through the league might not be required if City can win the European Cup for the first time next month. City reached the Champions League semifinals for the first time on Tuesday by eliminating French champion Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid is up next.
However pitiful Chelsea has been this season, the ailing Premier League champion remains packed with talent and was unbeaten at home in the league since Guus Hiddink took charge in December.
Chelsea's 11th loss of the league campaign will have been among the most irritating because the architect of the first two goals was Kevin De Bruyne, who was discarded by then-manager Jose Mourinho two years ago. City cannily brought the Belgium midfielder back to England last year for a fee of 75 million euros (around $85 million) that seemed hefty but looks like paying off in the long-term.
''He is a beautiful player to see,'' Hiddink said of the player who was sidelined in February and March. ''He developed himself very well and it's good to see.''
De Bruyne's surging runs made it a painful day for his former Chelsea teammates, initiating counterattacks that were twice completed by Aguero.
The opener came in the 33rd minute. De Bruyne seized possession inside his own half and held off Baba Rahman before squaring to Aguero 25 yards from goal. Aguero took one touch to take the ball past defender Gary Cahill before striking into the bottom corner of the net.
Chelsea never came close to equalizing before Aguero was on target again in the 54th.
Chelsea striker Diego Costa conceded the ball inside the hosts' penalty area, and De Bruyne took advantage, motoring to the halfway line where he squared to Samir Nasri. The midfielder continued the charge and slipped the ball to Aguero, who drew Courtois off his line and raised a shot into the net.
When Courtois raced off his line again in the 78th, it was a more impulsive and reckless decision, clipping Fernandinho as he was being rounded. Courtois was red-carded, and the first act of replacement Amir Begovic was to pick the ball out of his net after being beaten from the penalty spot by Aguero.
It was Aguero's 26th goal of the season in all competitions and his 99th since joining City five years ago. Pellegrini is mystified that his goal-scoring exploits are yet to be recognized with the ultimate individual award.
''It is very strange that Sergio has played so many years here and has never been the best player in the Premier League,'' Pellegrini said. ''In the Premier League we have very good players, but without doubt Kun is one of the best, if not the best.
''It was a great victory and a very good performance, very important not just to win but to play the way we did.''
By the time Chelsea and City meet again they will both be under new management. Both teams, who won the last two titles, are in the unusual position of having already announced new coaches for next season.
Pellegrini, who has already collected the League Cup this season, is determined to go out on a European high before handing over the managerial reigns to Pep Guardiola. Chelsea will try to rebuild under outgoing Italy coach Antonio Conte from a position of weakness, remaining 10th after this setback
''It's not that there was a big difference, but of course they (City) have more experience,'' Hiddink said. ''The defeat is high, deserved, but not so negative that we are now desperate.''
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
This story has been corrected to delete reference to City winning three straight for first time this season