The incidents along the way belong in a soap opera. The star – undoubtedly Rafa Benitez, and his eternal battle for the respect of those who felt he least deserved it. Sub-plots of Fernando Torres‘ woeful form, Frank Lampard’s pursuit of the Blues all-time scoring record and Roman Abramovich’s Mafia-like approach to administration also contributed heavily to the story line, but even before ‘the interim one’ turned up in West London, the Stamford Bridge outfit were in a baptism of fire.
They had just won the Champions League and FA Cup, a rare double that had come out of nothing. But off the pitch, the issues were aplenty. Question marks circled around the head of Roberto Di Matteo like vultures – he was loved and adored, before he claimed Chelsea’s Champions League title and even more so after, but the results and performances were sparse in their standard and quality, whilst John Terry ‘s four match ban for racial abuse had drastically damaged the club’s image, which wasn’t helped by the Blues falsely accusing referee Mark Clattenburg of the same crime amid a hostile Captial One Cup clash with Manchester United.
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The media circus was growing, but yet to reach its maximum. That all changed following a 3-0 defeat to Juventus in Europe, essentially eliminating them in the group stages of a tournament they had gone out to defend their title in. Di Matteo was given his marching orders in November, to make way for Rafa Benitez in his starring role, creating an adverse reaction amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful, due to his strong association with Liverpool, and the two clubs’ strong rivalry in Europe.
The club was divided between fan base and chairman, with the projected ends yet to justify the means. Stamford Bridge became a hostile place, with protests against the Spaniard and his employer from kick-off to the final whistle; the supporters couldn’t endure the embarrassment of a manager they had grown to detest whose appointment came at the expense of a club legend, and the players couldn’t endure the added pressure.
The QPR result was the biggest low. Losing to local rivals was not common practice for the Blues, but the salt in the wound was undoubtedly Rangers’ poor form, and even worse league position. The fans were angered, bitter and twisted, with a host of targets to vent their frustrations at, most notably Benitez, Fernando Torres and Roman Abramovich.
But by Christmas time, Chelsea’s season reached a turning point. Our lead man’s climactic speech, full of truth, honest, empathy and emotion, calling for a truce with the fans and blasting the title of ‘interim’, made the Blues faithful realise there would be better days ahead, whilst reports from Madrid shone like a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
The year of hell, encompassing continental failure, public embarrassment, hostility at home fixtures, media furore, a forced alliance with an old foe in Benitez, and constant criticism of how the club has been run by Roman Abramovich, would all be worth it, should Jose Mourinho, the only manager the fans and the chairman adored alike, make his long-anticipated return to West London. The fans could stomach ‘the interim one’ until the summer, if he could pave the way for ‘the special one’.
The players too, had to undergo a similar journey to the fans. The first team couldn’t find their identity for the first six months of the season, and endured systematic teething pains as they failed to overcome a legacy in squad and philosophy left behind by the failed tenure of Andre Villas-Boas. The young cast, the new way, the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar, struggled to integrate themselves to the English game, whilst the Old Guard, brought up on a different ethos, were determined to prove they could adapt as Chelsea modernised their style.
At the same time, certain individuals knew they were on trial. Fernando Torres was on a final warning after conjuring up just 12 goals from his first two campaigns in West London, Frank Lampard knew his Chelsea career would come to an abrupt end if he failed to shine and opinions on David Luiz’s defensive qualities remained divided.
The situation was made even more difficult due to the lack of time Chelsea actually spent on the training pitch. A hectic schedule saw the Blues entered in seven separate competitions last term, with the players averaging around 50 appearances each. It required the roster to remain vigilant for every performance, whilst the likes of Oscar, who had spent the previous year in Brazil on the sidelines, and Frank Lampard, who almost overnight had seemingly turned into an ageing veteran, were pushed to their physical limits.
They knew from November the Premier League title would be out of the reach, and the impossible task was made even tougher by the club’s busy calendar. But there is no doubt the squad meshed together at the midpoint of Rafa Benitez’s interim tenure, and a promising nucleus emerged in Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard.
The year had been a learning curb for the players like no other, with high intensity and little respite on and off the pitch. To say the Blues squad passed with flying colours would be an overstatement, but they grinded, pursued and persevered, eventually finishing up with a piece of silverware in the form of the Europa League.
Like the fans, the Chelsea roster now receive their reward in Jose Mourinho. The squad’s talent and potential is undeniable, but they needed a manager as gifted as the Special One to get them to the next level. John Terry and Frank Lampard needed the Portuguese’s psychological touch to halt their natural decline, whilst the likes of Mata, Hazard, David Luiz and Ramires had always shown promise, but were yet to solidify their reputations in England via the Premier League title.
And the challenge of domestic dominance suddenly seems like an incredibly realistic possibility following Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea are still in need of a consistent goalscorer, but the planned acquisition of Wayne Rooney will put the Blues on a parallel of quality with the two Manchester clubs, whilst the Portuguese’s leadership will not only bring out that little bit extra in player performances and provide the level of organisation the first team have desperately lacked over the past few years, but also once again align a fan base that had once drawn battle lines with Benitez and Abramovich.
Can they claim the Premier League title? We’ll have to wait and see. But Mourinho and Rooney appear to be the final pieces of the jigsaw, and what better motivation can there be for the squad after enduring such a long and painful season, where the players have earned their stripes on the pitch, whilst the fans have battled with the conveyor belt of controversy off it.
Last term really has been a rite of passage for everyone involved at Stamford Bridge, a learning curb like no other, and now, with Mourinho at the helm, they have the chance to claim their reward, with their first Premier League title in four years.
Will Chelsea’s troubled campaign motivate them to the Premier League title?
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