A few newspapers and websites have tried to identify the most influential matches in securing the title for Chelsea – here’s my attempt. There are some obvious suggestions, but a couple that the others haven’t thought of. And so, in reverse order…
5. Chelsea 2 Hull 1
Cast your mind back to a warm afternoon on Saturday 15 August. The dazzling sunshine seemed to somehow give credence to the idea that, under Ancelotti, there would be a new Chelsea with a bright future on show.
As it was, a lax display against Hull in this first game of the season at Stamford Bridge led to fans’ enthusiasm quickly being replaced with frustration. Hull actually went ahead, through the much-loved Stephen Hunt, and Chelsea laboured back into contention with Didier Drogba goal. As the game entered injury time – and just as it looked like Chelsea would drop their first points of the season against unfancied opposition - Drogba popped up again to score a fortunate winner.
I criticised Ancelotti for a lack of decisiveness and activity from the bench and bemoaned a performance that showed the worst of the old Chelsea. With retrospect however, it was an important opening day win. Chelsea won the next five Premier League games on the spin, scoring thirteen goals and conceding only one, establishing themselves as early favourites for the title.
4. Portsmouth 0 Chelsea 5
If the defeat at Stamford Bridge to Mourinho’s Inter was a kick in the teeth, Diouf’s equaliser only days later for Blackburn was a kick in the team’s collective ribs – and when they were down. It looked inevitable that the Champions League exit had precipitated a slide into end-of-season mediocrity.
The following game against struggling Portsmouth nipped that idea in the bud. An underwhelming first half performance – in which Chelsea still managed to finish with a lead due to a David James howler – was followed by a four-goal blitzkrieg in which Malouda was particularly effective.
The five nil win was a much-needed confidence boost as Chelsea entered the final furlong, and marked the beginning of a string of high-scoring matches. Most significantly, it was a sign that the Chelsea backbone was still intact and laid a marker for the Premier League run-in.
3. Arsenal 0 Chelsea 3
November 2009: Chelsea were comfortable leaders at the top of the table and looked on course to run away with the league. Aside from a tetchy encounter with Man Utd at Stamford Bridge however, Ancelotti’s men had been largely unchallenged and hadn’t played any of the so-called ‘big four’ away from home.
Many pundits thought that the visit to the Emirates would see the Chelsea juggernaut knocked off course: Arsenal were playing good football, Fabregas was on fire and Chelsea hadn’t been tested. Furthermore, Chelsea had showed signs of weakness away from home.
Those pundits were well wrong. This was as one-sided a contest as you’ll see between teams in the top four of the Premier League, with Chelsea’s men beating Arsenal’s boys with energy in reserve. Drogba, who according to Wenger ‘didn’t do much’, was imperious, and bullied the Arsenal defence into defeat with two immaculate goals. Chelsea looked unstoppable.
2. Chelsea 7 Sunderland 2
If August, September and November had been great, December was awful. Chelsea played a huge number of games and a string of draws and losses suggested the ageing team was creaking under the strain. First place in the league was under threat, and media soothsayers were circling with warnings of the famous post-Christmas Man Utd charge.
Adding to the anxiety was the forthcoming African Cup of Nations: the argument went that, shorn of Drogba, Essien, Kalou and Mikel, Chelsea would struggle to recapture title-winning form.
As it was, January went without a hitch, and Chelsea steamrollered all-comers. The win at Sunderland stood-out, with a seven goal haul sending a message to nay-sayers that there was the strength and depth required at Chelsea to manage without the African contingent.
Contrary to the prophecies of doom, the African Cup of Nations was arguably the best thing that happened to Chelsea all season. Chelsea were denied some of their best players, yes, but it was during a period of relatively easy games. More significantly, Drogba’s absence led to Ancelotti reverting to the tried and trusted 4-3-3 that would form the backbone of Chelsea’s goal-scoring title charge.
1. Manchester Utd 1 Chelsea 2
Both at the time and in hindsight this was a must-win game. With the stakes sky high, Ancelotti made the huge decision to leave top-scorer Drogba on the bench, and it paid off.
There was only one team in the game in the first half, and Chelsea opened the scoring through a delightful Joe Cole backheel. The second half saw a rejuvenated Man Utd rarely threaten the Chelsea net, although it was uncharacteristic good luck that refereeing errors (which were evenly spread across both sides) didn’t end up going Utd’s way.
The win gave Chelsea a four-point advantage, which turned out to be the deciding factor just a couple of weeks later when Spurs outclassed the Blues at White Hart Lane.
What do you think – have I missed a more important Chelsea result or performance? Or were there more pivotal results for rivals elsewhere that swung it in Chelsea’s favour? Post a comment…