Blues captain proves worth as fallen giants fight in vain to revive fortunes
Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30
When the fixture list was released last August, Chelsea fans saw that their team's last home game of the season was against Leicester City and thought: that may well be where the title is won. And they could yet be right, that might be a pivotal game in deciding the destiny of this year's crown.
One thing is for sure, though: it won't be the champions winning it. Even as Leicester are in the ascendant, Chelsea's chances disappeared long, long ago.
And here against Manchester United you could see why. This was once a match that crackled with meaning and importance.
In the recent past, games against United had an intensity you could feel in the air as you made your way along Fulham Palace Road into Stamford Bridge. Here it was a meaningless shadow boxing bout featuring two has-been contenders, a game between the 13th and fifth placed teams in the Premier League that demonstrated the presiding truth of the competition: the table doesn't lie.
Chelsea are marooned in midtable boondocks, unable to conjure up the momentum for an upwards surge for one simple reason: they are not very good.
Sure, Guus Hiddink has brought a sense of order and calm after the emotional turmoil that surrounded the end of Jose Mourinho's time. He quickly put to rest the more fanciful fears of impending relegation and has made them harder to beat.
But make no mistake - they remain a limp shadow of the side that had effectively won the title by this time last season. And, had they been playing a side of more ambition and attacking verve than Louis van Gaal's United, it is not hard to argue that they would have lost this game.
Given the dispiriting nature of the present, given the manner in which Chelsea have slipped so precipitously from their perch, for the Chelsea faithful the news that John Terry, the presiding spirit of the team for the past ten years, is to be let go continues to baffle.
And, at the first home game since the news that their hero was not to be gifted a new contract, they showed their opinion of the decision to excise the last remaining vestige of the glory days.
They removed all the banners that decorate the Matthew Harding Stand except for one. There, tellingly, remained the one which reads: captain, leader, legend.
Terry is the man who epitomises the indomitable qualities of the club as the fans see it. The last player to break through from the junior ranks, he is the original one of their own.
And here, once again, as they were over the decision to defenestrate Mourinho, the fans find themselves in opposition to those who run the club.
For the board, Terry is an ageing drain on resources, a chippy, dissident voice, an obstacle that needs to be cleared away so that the new manager - whoever he may be - can start afresh without his four-square dressing-room presence. For the fans he is the irreplaceable heart of the club.
And it was hard, watching Terry throw himself into every challenge here, not to sympathise with the fans over this one. The way he dived headlong into the fray to effect a headed interception, the way he did a vigorous scissor-kick to clear ahead of Juan Mata, the way he slid in to dispossess Marouane Fellaini, he looked a man unaffected by chronology.
Sure, he could not stop Jesse Lingard from scoring what Hiddink called a "beautiful goal". Sure he could not physically force his team forward when they spent too much of the game on their heels. Sure it was not him but Diego Costa who snapped up the game's best chance at the death.
But it is Terry who remains the most compelling, central performer of a much diminished side. For the fans to lose him now seems odd.
Surely, they believe, Chelsea need his experience and commitment more than ever, to remind those who come next what it means to represent this club.
Hiddink - as urbane and polite as his Dutch counterpart Van Gaal is defensive and argumentative - suggested the chances of compromise over the terms for the player's retention have not yet been exhausted. But Terry himself seems ever more disillusioned, certain that the end approaches.
And this is what most gives the Chelsea fans sleepless nights: once Terry goes, who will drive this Chelsea team? Who will be the conscience keeping the disparate egos together? Who will be the presiding force propelling them to keep performing until the final whistle.
Perhaps it will be the Fellaini-headed Willian, the only one of the Chelsea midfield apparently infused with sufficient urgency to advance forward whenever he received the ball.
Maybe it will be Thibaut Courtois, whose saves were almost as critical as those of David De Gea in ensuring that this game ended as a draw. Beyond that, however, it is hard to see a new captain amongst this lot. Never mind a leader or a legend.