The arrival of Jose Mourinho may have been a watershed moment for Chelsea, but it wasn’t just the man who anointed himself The Special One who changed the Blues at Stamford Bridge.
In his first spell in charge, he didn’t lose a home game. But that record pre-dates the now-Manchester United manager’s arrival, and it continued after he’d left, too.
Stamford Bridge was indeed a fortress, a place where Chelsea had found the winning formula and kept it under lock and key. Since Arsenal, the Invincible Arsenal, beat Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea in February 2004, right up until Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool beat Luis Felipe Scolari’s side in October 2008, the Blues were unbeaten at home. Well over four years.
It couldn’t last, but it could have lasted longer.
It’s one thing to have your unbeaten run start with the visit of a team who would achieve a feat that no one had done before or has done since in English football, but to have it end against one of your most bitter rivals is another.
Chelsea and Liverpool aren’t just any old rivals. Rivalries based on geographical location are always big: city rivalries or regional ones tend to be some of the biggest in world football. But rivalries where both clubs hate each other for concrete reasons are rare, and in a way they’re special.
And so to have Liverpool come to Stamford Bridge to end an unbeaten run at home of 86 games which stretched back four managers is quite the disappointment. Indeed, losing to a deflected strike that would otherwise have been considered fairly tame only adds to that hurt.
This was late 2008, and right in the peak of the Big Four years. Chelsea were no longer just the moneyed newcomers, but were accepted as part of the establishment of English football’s power elite. And if any team was to fall out of that elite, you thought it would be Liverpool: the only one of the four to not have have lifted a title in the Premier League era, even if they’d been to two Champions League finals in recent years – a trophy Chelsea were desperate to win.
Liverpool, in the end, would be the ones to drop out, at least for a while, as a restructuring of the league turned the Big Four into a Top Six as Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur joined in the fun. This was the 2008/09 season, Liverpool’s best league showing under Rafael Benitez when they finished second, the highest position they’ve ever attained in the Premier League and one they’ve held two other times at the end of the season. Since then, Liverpool have finished above Chelsea only twice, once in the season they fell so heartbreakingly close to a title victory in 2013/14 and another in 2015/16, when Jose Mourinho’s post-title meltdown saw the Blues finish 10th.
Perhaps some of that has to do with the fact that this was Xabi Alonso’s final season at Anfield. He was a player of supreme talent, having won the Champions League at two different clubs and titles in three different countries, who Liverpool were always going to miss. But more importantly, his departure seemed to signify the fact that the Rafael Benitez side who were so successful, especially in Europe, was about to come to the end of its cycle.
The Spanish coach left in 2010 after a 7th placed finish. Since then, Liverpool have only been back in the top four twice.
With the Premier League’s new cabal of six now looking set to stay, it might be harder and harder for Liverpool to sustain their Champions League spot over the next few seasons.
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