Not for the first time this season – in fact, not for the first time in the last few weeks – Chelsea appeared on the ropes, stumbling around in their final seconds of full consciousness, as they prepared to host Manchester United on Sunday; just one more killer blow from a fellow heavyweight needed to knock them out of this season’s title race and send Antonio Conte’s increasingly troubled tenure spiralling beyond control – something David Luiz’s unexpected exclusion from the starting XI only further amplified.
Then, against the second-most feared side in the Premier League, Chelsea produced their bravest, boldest and best performance at Stamford Bridge this season, one that required contained composure amid a frenetic start, the desire to match Manchester United’s and the quality to break down a defence that had previously conceded just four goals to only two teams in the Premier League.
It was a performance worthy of reigning champions but one that seemed far beyond them just a few days prior after a disorganised and disjointed 3-0 defeat to Roma that combined all the fears of Chelsea’s second season under Conte; a slender squad, injury problems, the added burden of European football and a manager reaching the very end of a very short fuse. And yet, Chelsea fans probably weren’t all that surprised arguably their best performance of the season directly followed easily the worst of Conte’s reign – the gap between a mere four days.
After all, Chelsea are the Premier League’s undisputed crisis kings, a trait they’ve had to develop to survive under Roman Abramovich. That’s not just a consequence of how trigger-happy the Blues owner can be in determining the fates of his managers and demanding he is in terms of silverware, but also the stigmatisms attached to how his unprecedented financial backing made the club one of English football’s juggernauts. Chelsea have spent the last 14 years under the microscope and scandal – whether it’s Ashley Cole’s wages, John Terry’s extra-marital activities or Jose Mourinho’s vicious swipes at rivals – has rarely been far away.
Often though, that’s when Chelsea have tended to thrive. It’s almost impossible to count the number of times Chelsea have symbolised that relentless attention in the media by withstanding heavy pressure in games to come away with the right result, and it was fitting Chelsea’s greatest ever achievement, the 2012 Champions League title, was won by comfortably the worst team of the Abramovich era.
Chelsea come alive when their backs are to the wall and the rest of the world doubts their ability to hold their nerve. For a club only one or two defeats away from a crisis at any given time, largely because of the extra focus the media often place on them, that’s a fantastic attribute to have.
But the victory over Manchester United carries real relevance compared to two years ago when Chelsea fittingly imploded under the man in the opposite dugout on Sunday. The ultimate causes behind the Blues’ disastrous title defence in 2015/16 remain a mystery that will never be truly solved, but the diminished experience and leadership of a squad that parted with Petr Cech and Didier Drogba that summer was inevitably a factor. The players left behind just couldn’t rally together to turn their season around as their poor form snowballed into something far more sinister.
So when Chelsea’s Captain, Leader, Legend moved on to Aston Villa in the summer, even after a campaign that saw him barely start in the top flight, similar concerns of team-mates failing to fill his void amid another title defence inevitably emerged. But even if Chelsea are once again unable to hold onto the English crown this time around, they’ve already shown they have the character to cope with such high-stakes, pressurised scenarios when the odds are stacked against them and their season hangs in the balance.
The win over Manchester United on Sunday, following a period in which 13 goals had been conceded in seven games and doubts had surrounded Conte’s future, wasn’t the first instance this season. Chelsea faced Tottenham with a vastly depleted squad and unfit players even starting at Wembley out of necessity, but still pulled through to win an away game against big six rivals that saw them manager just 32% possession by any means possible.
Against Watford last month, the Blues found themselves 2-1 down at half-time and only spared from a two-goal deficit by Richarlison’s wayward finishing. But just as their campaign appeared to be a few inches the wrong side of the post away from spiralling towards catastrophe, the west Londoners dug deep once again and emerged victorious in a stunning 4-2 comeback. While that owed much to the sheer quality of Chelsea’s attack compared to their disorganised defence, it was also evidence of the character and belief within the squad – something that was completely absent during Mourinho’s final season.
It probably won’t be enough to win them the title this season – Manchester City are already nine points clear of the Blues – and it probably won’t even keep Conte in the job based on how fractured some relationships at Stamford Bridge already appear to be. But coming alive in crises has been an instrumental trait for Chelsea throughout the Abramovich era and even following a summer in which significant chances have been made to the spine of the team after losing the most inspirational and successful captain in the club’s history, this season’s evidence suggests those vital instincts have successfully been passed on.
Chelsea aren’t the best team in the Premier League this season, but few can spin a crisis into an act of defiance quite like them.