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Perhaps it is because they had, in effect, won this league title by Christmas that it has felt so unsatisfactory. There comes a point when you are so superior to the opposition that anything less than perfection feels like decline, and it is probably that from which Chelsea are suffering.
The statistics, though, are plain enough: anything but defeat in each of their final three games of the season will secure them a second successive Premiership. Only Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Bob Paisley’s Liverpool have managed that in modern times.
If they could do it on Saturday against United, and so celebrate in front of their closest challengers, so much the better. Even if the victory parade has become a route march, to be in a position to wrap up the title with three games to go is mightily impressive.
“We had a couple of slips,” said their captain John Terry on Friday, “and everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon maybe because we set ourselves such standards last season. It’s still a great achievement.”
And yet the sense lingers that the “Special One’s” halo has become tarnished. Perhaps it was inevitable that familiarity would breed contempt, but it is not simply that manager Jose Mourinho’s spikiness has slid so frequently into surliness; there have been suggestions recently that he is not tactically so infallible as once he seemed. Leaving out his wingers in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool turned out to be misguided, but more significant was the thinking that lay behind it: the negativity of the gesture hinted at an unexpected lack of confidence in his own system.
Perhaps it is simply that opponents are beginning to work out the 4-3-3 that was once so deadly – certainly the policy of man-marking Claude Makelele, the metronome who sets Chelsea’s rhythm, has become increasingly common – but either way, the invincibility they seemed to have assumed now appears flawed.
“We had one spell of two or three games on the bounce where we didn’t play so well, but we haven’t had a bad month,” said Terry.
Nor has their awesome home form ever faltered. What cracks there are, are hairline, Mourinho has not known a home defeat since Porto lost to Beira Mar in February 2002.
Terry was even insistent that Chelsea were better this season than they were last. “I think we’ve improved,” he said. “It’s just that the others have as well. At the end of this season we’ll strengthen again, and the others will…”
And there, of course, is the nub, for Chelsea’s strengthening is capable of outstripping anybody else’s. Michael Ballack, Germany’s totem, is already in “serious negotiations”.
Even without the thought of signings, Mourinho was dismissive last week when asked if he thought Liverpool could topple them next season, pointing out that Chelsea have accumulated 45 points more than Rafael Benitez’s side over the past two years. Ferguson, though, has spoken of the possibility of an intriguing four-way struggle next season.
That is possible, but it is certainly not likely. Liverpool need, at the very least, an additional centre-back, a right-sided midfielder and a centre-forward if they are to mount a realistic challenge next season; Arsenal are probably still too young, capable of producing explosive games every once in a while but perhaps not consistently over a season; while the substance of United’s recent surge will be tested today.
That, in a sense, is what this lunchtime’s game is all about. Realistically, the title is Chelsea’s – even if they slip to their first home defeat since February 2004 – and the most United can hope to gain is a nebulous psychological advantage ahead of next season, having already beaten Chelsea at Old Trafford this season.
Terry said he had always thought United would be Chelsea’s nearest rivals this year, and spoke of the boost they had received during United’s “sticky patch”. In terms of a goalkeeper, a back four and a front two, they probably will be again, but there must still be doubts about the quality of the central midfield. How the pairing of Ryan Giggs and John O’Shea copes on Saturday will be eagerly scrutinised on either side.
Even if they are rampant, though, this has been Chelsea’s year. The season may have rather dwindled to their triumph, but history will judge it kindly.
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