Monday, May 04, 2015

There was only one word for it: inevitable.

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It's not over yet, although it is, and in truth, has been for a long time. The party streamers and champagne corks strewn across the pitch at Stamford Bridge tell the tale of relief, elation, vindication and many, many more emotions.

Chelsea have become Barclays Premier League champions for the 2014-2015 season. That title might suggest a competition that began in August and is will end on May 24 (with the champions still to play three more games), but in reality, it was probably over before 2015 had even begun.

That is not meant to be a boast - truly it wasn't. But the Usain Bolt-like speed with which Chelsea sprinted out of the traps in August was truly breathtaking. In fact, such was the rapidity and regularity with which Diego Costa was scoring goals so early in the competition - good goals, exciting goals, goals created by Cesc Fabregas - that many jaded Chelsea fans were still caught discussing whether the club had bought yet another couple of misfits from La Liga (thanks, of course, to Spain's limp performance in the World Cup).

Clearly it hadn't, and even if injury, suspension and fatigue has, respectively, removed Costa from the battle and Fabregas from effectiveness in the second half of the season, their contribution in the first half must not go unrecognised. The fact that suspension and a recurring hamstring injury has limited Costa's involvement since Christmas is all the more remarkable when you consider a goals-to-games ratio of almost 80% for the season as a whole.

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When the season began, a large majority of pundits noted how well balanced Chelsea were. That, with Costa up front, Hazard, Oscar and a choice of other attacking midfielders, Matic in the holding role, a solid defensive quartet and Courtois in goal, Jose Mourinho had the potential to make good his prophesy last season about the little horse winning the title this time.

What the experts didn't note, however, was the intellectual aspect of Mourinho's game, that he hadn't just assembled a squad of some potency, but that his tactical nouse was pretty much the 12th man in Chelsea's team. And thus it has proven to be: blitzkreig before Christmas, a "strategic" (his words) approach when injury denied him his main battle tank. 

Love him or loathe him - and we all know there are plenty in the latter camp - you simply cannot deny that Mourinho is a special one: 22 career trophies as a manager (an average of one every 34 games), league titles in four countries, and a win rate of 135 out of 193 Premier League matches played. A staggering achievement.

So, then. Chelsea boring? There's no doubt that in being "strategic", Mourinho has had to abandon creativity for pragmatism. The loss of Costa was significant, the decline of Fabregas a pain. But Mourinho managed to conjure team performances that compensated for this. And as for all that 'parking the bus' nonsense, how many teams have come to Stamford Bridge to do just that? It takes two to tango.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
There's no point comparing Chelsea and Barcelona. Barca are Barca, in their own world, surrounded their own romantic notion of football. Madrid too. I watch a fair bit of Italian football, as well, and while I love the theatre of it all, theatricality is too often what you get. 

For that reason, it still pains me to see a Chelsea player go over like a dying swan. And, yes, Eden Hazard, I do mean you. A little.

On the other hand, the arguments about Chelsea being boring lack any intelligent rationality: with striking options limited, what was Mourinho supposed to do - just say "fuck it lads, knock it about a bit, play some tikka-takka, and if we win, we win, and if not, we've had fun trying"?

That does not cut with any Premier League team. The object is to win. Sometimes you win pretty, sometimes you win ugly. Sometimes you face an opponent who gives you the space to play elaborately, another game, you're up against the proverbial wall. Chelsea can't be derided for mixing and matching their style of play to the opponent they face. Winning is the objective. 

As a Chelsea fan I am, of course, beside myself with glee that the club I've supported since childhood, and until a decade ago hadn't won more than a couple of major trophies since 1955, has won its fourth Premier League title in ten years. Of course they've done it with Abramovich's money. Yes, they've done it three times with Mourinho's intelligence, guile and tactical cunning more than any discernible style. But, yes, they've done it at all.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
I'm always amused by the baying, braying chants of opposition fans, especially those challenging the apparent Johnny-come-latelys that the gentrified Stamford Bridge has drawn. 

"Where were you when you were shit!" is the most popular. "Right here", is my usual retort, remembering seeing the tail-end of Mickey Droy and Ron 'Chopper' Harris's careers, the Second Division mudbaths, the so-called "new stand" that almost bankrupted the club (and which I still sit in...and refer to as "the new stand"), and the dismal, 7,000-attendance bores during which would look up at the old away end and see no more than a handful of brave souls who'd trudged in from the provinces to watch a low-end encounter.

That, by the way, isn't a sob story. And nor is it a story of genuine survival and progressive betterment, such as the remarkable rise of Bournemouth, and their well-deserved ascent into the Premier League next term. 

No, it's the reality that after decades of watching Chelsea trade off its supposed 1960s glamour and Hollywood connections (Sophia Loren anyone?) and be perennial underachievers, that we're enjoying the sort of sustained success that I and many others moaned about Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, and Manchester United and Arsenal in the 1990s. And like them, Chelsea can now join that small band of clubs whose fan refrain is "no one likes us, we don't care". Perhaps the highest accolade of them all.

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