Sunday 21 January 2018

Chelsea 'Mark II' go through the gears to cross the line

Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 0

The Crystal Palace players are a picture of dejection as Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring for Chelsea
The Crystal Palace players are a picture of dejection as Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring for Chelsea
Eden Hazard scores the first goal for Chelsea after having his penalty saved
Chelsea's Didier Drogba has a headed attempt on goal saved by Crystal Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni
Crystal Palace's Jordon Mutch (left) and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic confront each other
Crystal Palace's Jordon Mutch in action with Chelsea's Willian
Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois, John Terry, Eden Hazard, Willian and Branislav Ivanovic celebrate after winning the Barclays Premier League
Chelsea's Gary Cahill celebrates after winning the Barclays Premier League

Sam Wallace

In the closing stages of Chelsea's final march to the title yesterday, Jose Mourinho turned to the seats behind his dugout and discreetly rolled his eyes at the effort of it all, at the sheer bloody-mindedness required to see one last home victory over the line.

No club wins a Premier League title easily, although some can make it seem that way. Not every team do it with the flair and excitement that we imagine the best teams from the past were capable of.

But every team that climbs this summit deserves the title of champions, whether they win it on goal difference in injury-time or, like Mourinho's side, a long way clear of the pack.

The Chelsea of 2015, the Chelsea of Mourinho II, are no different. They can be unlovable at times, an unyielding force that creates for the opposition the effect of being in a room where the walls are slowly closing in, but there is no question that they have been the best this time.


While other clubs have melted under the pressure, Mourinho's side have adapted, reformed, gone again and won matches when the heat was on.

It was the same against Crystal Palace, when a questionable penalty - awarded to Eden Hazard, saved by Julian Speroni and then scored on the rebound by the Belgian - was the game's decisive moment.

By the end, Mourinho had eight defensive players on the pitch and was preoccupied with squeezing the last drops of resistance from a Palace team that came with grand plans and departed with nothing.

Later, Mourinho, in what was one of his more low-key press conferences, listed the different obstacles his team had been obliged to overcome, the different strategies they had been forced to adopt - even over the course of just one afternoon against Palace.

They had, he said, had games when they had dominated possession, others when they had let the opposition have the ball. They had overcome counter-attacking sides and everything else the Premier League throws up.

As he rattled off the different challenges, you could see he was getting close to the essence of this particular Chelsea team.

They are the masters when it comes to negating the opposition's strengths, counter-punching and then shutting up shop. They do what it takes to win football matches and it is a philosophy shaped by their manager.

The fourth title of the Roman Abramovich era is the third for Mourinho and puts him up there on the all-time list with Arsene Wenger, Bill Shankly and Stan Cullis. Deep down, his place in history means everything to him. He was edgy rather than ebullient for much of the game. In the first half, he seemed most disappointed with the efforts of the home fans in comparison with Palace's away support. In deference, he gave the away end a thumbs-up.

Later the Palace supporters sang, "Jose is a Palace fan". His wife, Tami, a very occasional visitor to Stamford Bridge, was sitting in the seats just by the dugout.

It has been a strange week for the Mourinhos, with Jose's 76-year-old father Felix having suffered a brain haemorrhage that has necessitated trips to Portugal this week from his son to be with him after surgery.

It was the experience of seeing his father, also a football manager, sacked once on Christmas Day that drove on Jose to the great heights he has scaled. It would be fair to say no one will be sacking Jose II any time soon.

At half-time, Mourinho brought on John Obi Mikel, then Kurt Zouma and Filipe Luis in the closing stages as Chelsea hung on grimly to their lead.

His team have done it with three games to spare and could yet reach 92 points, just three short of the Premier League record that they set in Mourinho's first season in charge, 2004-05.

The quality of this Chelsea team has not been in question, it is simply that since Mourinho adopted the defensive position of the last few months, it has been less than thrilling for the rest of us.

His programme notes were 10 words long. "Three more points to be champions. Let's do it together," he wrote.

Before the game, Ramires was taken ill, serious enough that he went to hospital, and in his place came Juan Cuadrado, with Nathan Ake promoted to the bench.

Chelsea's lead came from a debatable penalty in the last minute of the first half when Hazard squeezed between Adrian Mariappa and James McArthur and popped out the other side airborne, as if fired from a cannon.

It looked as if Mariappa might have had the decisive touch, but once he felt it, Hazard launched.

These are difficult decisions to make when the best attacking player in the league is travelling so rapidly and referee Kevin Friend looked as if he made the easiest in the circumstances. You could make a case either way. It was by no means clear-cut.

With the penalty, Hazard tried to deceive Speroni with his eyes, but the old Argentinian is too cute for that. He dived to the left and saved the ball, but it rebounded kindly for Hazard to head it in - a much more difficult finish than it looked.


Otherwise, Palace had done well and might have had a penalty themselves when John Terry threw life and limb in front of a Jason Puncheon shot on 29 minutes. The ball had struck the Chelsea captain's hand first, which was not in a natural position.

At half-time, Mourinho replaced Cuadrado, who had tried hard, but with little effect. On came Zouma to thicken a midfield that was getting more crowded with every tactical switch.

The gradual dawning on Palace was, as many teams have found against Chelsea, that conceding the first goal could prove decisive.

Their belief drained from them and they struggled to get beyond a defence superbly led again by Terry, who will get his hands on the Premier League trophy come the last home game against Sunderland, when the party can resume.

One does not expect Mourinho to let up against Liverpool or West Bromwich Albion in the interim and after May 24 it will be up to the rest to figure out a way of stopping them next season. (© Independent News Service)

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