AT THE beginning of the season, Jose Mourinho spoke modestly about Chelsea's chances of winning the title. There were so many contenders, he said, that he could only describe his side as one of the favourites. Mourinho insisted that any one of six teams could win the league. This was the only thing preventing him from being more bold. "It is a pity we have so many title contenders; if not I would say we are going to be champions."
At the end of November, when Chelsea were eight points clear of Manchester City and with no other contender apparent, Mourinho's faith in his team looked justified. He was following a preferred approach and it was easy to believe that by Christmas, Chelsea would be coasting to the title and Mourinho would assume a familiar position as he spoke affectionately about England, the Premier League and all they have done for him (all he has done for them is implied but doesn't need to be stated in these moments).
Instead, Chelsea entered the first Premier League weekend of 2015 ahead of Manchester City alphabetically, something which would lead to a play-off if it remained the same at the end of the season.
Mourinho has assumed another familiar position. At the moment, he is not speaking with the press. The assistant first team coach Steve Holland is talking to the media instead as Mourinho is upset that he has been charged by the FA for suggesting there is a campaign against his side. He has the backing of the club in his silence.
The details of the supposed campaign are well known but also irrelevant. What is important is that Mourinho now has the perfect conditions for one to exist.
Yet, there are deeper concerns. Ten of Chelsea's squad have started 16 or more league games this season. As they moved ahead of the rest, this strategy seemed well-judged but as they faced a new year with Manchester City preparing to spend £30 million on a striker, Mourinho would need to ask more from the rest of the squad.
"The players have taken a real battering," Holland said after yesterday's game. "It's very difficult to reach the level everybody wants to see, especially in this country at this time of the year when we play so many matches."
Mourinho had relied on his key players over Christmas but against Newcastle yesterday, he made changes.
Thibaut Courtois had a finger injury and wasn't risked but Gary Cahill, who had started every Premier League game before yesterday, was rested, replaced by Kurt Zouma. Cahill had been shaky in recent weeks and Chelsea's 5-3 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur was always going to provoke a reaction from Mourinho.
His rage remained at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea played for the first half as if their next goal was to drop points at home for the first time this season.
Chelsea's first defeat of the season came at St James' Park at the beginning of December and Newcastle took the game to Mourinho's side yesterday. On the Chelsea bench, Mourinho took on the duty of badgering the fourth official, presumably as the regular man Holland had taken on extra media duties. Mourinho complained endlessly too about Newcastle's time-wasting, but saw no reason to take it out on Newcastle's caretaker manager John Carver.
Carver, it turns out, is one of the good guys in Mourinho's world and the pair occasionally broke away from the game to engage in what could probably be described as physical banter as they bearhugged their way through any sideline difficulties.
Mourinho's real concerns were on the pitch. Nemanja Matic - who has started 20 of their 21 Premier League games - looked weary in the first half and, as a result, Newcastle could run at a defence that doesn't enjoy players running at it.
The excellent Remy Cabella went close and Yoan Gouffran's free-kick was parried straight out by Petr Cech and frantically cleared. From the breakaway, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa linked up but Costa returned the ball to Hazard when he could have shot which allowed Jack Colback to clear.
Costa was another player whose first-half performance would have led to some concerns. Mourinho spent the early months talking incessantly about Costa's hamstring injury but he is another player who has started nearly every game and in the first 45 minutes, it looked as if it was beginning to show.
Newcastle had been impressive even if they had betrayed a lack of confidence in the way they wasted their chances. Just before half-time, they were guilty in a way a Mourinho side is unlikely ever to be guilty when they lost concentration defending a corner. This allowed Willian to take it short to Branislav Ivanovic who headed straight towards goal and played the ball across the box where Oscar was waiting to finish.
The game was up then, long before Costa came alive and scored Chelsea's second with half an hour remaining.
Costa's finish was a demonstration of his excellence, even if the question remains if the core that Mourinho is relying on can keep them clear of Manchester City.
When Chelsea go to a place like the Britannia Stadium and win, they do so with a collective purpose enhanced by their dependence on these key players.
It is, of course, a familiar Mourinho strategy, the creation of an inner circle that he relies on at the expense of others.
Once Oscar scored yesterday, Chelsea seemed to remember this collective principle. Matic was back screening his defence by any means possible, picking up a booking when he blocked off a Cabella run with his arm,
Mourinho might have felt his commitment to these players would have given them a lead going into the second half of the season.
Instead, they have been chased down by a Manchester City who, through design and circumstance, have taken a different approach.
As Chelsea went through the motions in the final 20 minutes before victory was confirmed here, City took the lead at Everton and promptly lost it again.
These are the kind of things it is customary to say wouldn't happen to a Mourinho side but after the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane, it's hard to say what will and won't happen to a Mourinho side.
By the end of the day, they were two points clear of City again. At Stamford Bridge, the second half had provided signs that Chelsea have not lost sight of their values.
As they closed out the game, they looked like a team in control of their destiny again, a team that has no need of rest until the ultimate victory has been achieved.
Sunday Indo Sport