Champions Chelsea unloved but unstoppable
The Premier League title beckoned for Chelsea from the moment Andre Schuerrle put them ahead after 20 minutes and 45 seconds of their opening fixture at Burnley on August 18.
Diego Costa’s first Chelsea goal cancelled out Scott Arfield’s opener and four minutes later Schuerrle converted a sumptuous, half-volleyed pass from Cesc Fabregas at the culmination of a superb 25-pass move.
Branislav Ivanovic’s 34th-minute goal completed a 3-1 win that took Jose Mourinho’s side above defending champions Manchester City on goals scored at the top of the table, and they have been there largely ever since.
“They’ve definitely been the best team in the league,” admits Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. “They’ve only lost twice this season. Their consistency has been the best and that’s what you need.”
That win at Burnley, with Eden Hazard dazzling, Costa scoring and Fabregas supplying two assists, provided the blueprint for the Blues’ entire season, but the formula was tweaked after the turn of the year.
Chelsea won 11 and drew three of their first 14 games, notably beating Arsenal and Liverpool and crushing Everton 6-3, which sparked talk of an unbeaten campaign.
But they lost 2-0 at Newcastle United in early December and a 5-3 humbling at Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day — which saw City pull dead-level for the space of nine days — prompted Mourinho to circle the wagons.
There was an emphatic 5-0 victory at Swansea City on January 17, but despite their challengers all falling away, Mourinho reverted to type and Chelsea’s next seven league wins would all come by a one-goal margin.
The leaders were taunted with chants of ‘Boring, boring Chelsea!’ during a 0-0 draw at Arsenal in April that edged them closer to the title, but captain John Terry said the criticism was unfounded.
“Possession and tippy-tappy football’s great, but if you are not winning games, you’re not going to win the league,” he said.
Despite their dominance, Chelsea have seemed to spend much of the season with their backs to the wall as Mourinho employed a familiar strategy by creating a siege mentality.
– Hazard irrepressible –
After Fabregas was booked for diving during a 1-1 draw at Southampton in late December, the Portuguese declared that there was a “campaign” against his team orchestrated by the media and opposition coaches.
He was fined £25,000 ($38,310, 34,900 euros) by the Football Association, but it did not prevent him repeating the accusation after Costa was roundly criticised for treading on Liverpool pair Emre Can and Martin Skrtel in the League Cup semi-finals.
But if the stage-managed scowling was classic Mourinho, so too were the masterful close-season transfer dealings that saw him strengthen his squad in almost every department.
Stalwarts Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole left, while Petr Cech’s 11-year stint as first-choice goalkeeper ended after Thibaut Courtois arrived following a three-year loan at Atletico Madrid.
Fabregas has brought trophy-winning know-how and an eye for the killer pass, while the snarling Costa — a £32 million acquisition from Atletico — has supplied the goals that were badly missed as City outscored Chelsea 102-71 in 2013-14.
The sales of David Luiz and Romelu Lukaku helped fund the rearmament and despite Chelsea also signing Filipe Luis, Loic Remy and Juan Cuadrado, they will finish the season with a transfer spending surplus.
Typically of Mourinho, the title success was founded upon a defence imperiously marshalled by 34-year-old Terry that has recorded a league-high 17 clean sheets.
The star of the show, however, has been the irrepressible Hazard, scorer of the title-clinching goal against Crystal Palace and who Mourinho says he now values at “£100 million for each leg”.
The league title followed a 2-0 victory over Tottenham in the League Cup final, which gave Mourinho the first silverware of his second stint at Chelsea.
But there was a sensation in the FA Cup, as third-tier Bradford City came from 2-0 down to win 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, and an oddly passive exit from the Champions League, where Paris Saint-Germain progressed on away goals.
The PSG result, in particular, exposed Mourinho to accusations that his safety-first approach had back-fired, but after such a successful season, he is unlikely to revisit his principles.
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