A few months ago, Chelsea FC was in disarray. League leaders for most of the season till then, they suddenly found their on-field exploits over-shadowed, diminished and threatened for all the wrong reasons off-field.
Their bombarding full-backs, the impetus-givers for most of their attacks, were stretchered off. Their midfield engine was injured on international duty; a potentially career-killing development for any manager of the Blues; just ask Scolari. The captain, and by all means the club mascot, was humiliated as a visibly gleeful media trumpeted news of his alleged infidelities. Another player’s marriage hit the rocks in even more public fashion, with his pop-star wife walking out on him after lurid cell-phone texts became public. And then, with the aging legs of the squad seemingly surviving on borrowed time, Chelsea FC’s revered former manager delivered the final blow in the Champions League, as he effectively dismantled his former wards, across two legs. The spirit at Stamford Bridge was broken, desolate, in ruins, and desperately in need of a miracle.
A frank, heart-to-heart chat is what they called it. The details remain sketchy. Some say Roman Abramovich bluntly asked his players, in the wake of their defeat to Inter Milan and draw to Blackburn, if they were worth their pay packages. Some say Abramovich left it to Ancelotti to speak to his players and may have delivered the Italian a thinly veiled ultimatum. What we do know for sure, is that a meeting did take place behind closed doors; one in which the players reportedly spoke freely and offered their manager suggestions on how to resurrect the team’s fortunes.
It came with a minor tweak in formation; gone was the diamond that worked so well at the start of the season. In its place, came the ruthlessly efficient 4-3-3; with midfield maestro Frank Lampard operating from a deeper midfield role. The hitherto unused flanks came alive, as Chelsea made light of the absence of their fullbacks. Reverting to a single-striker mode, meant either Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka – both golden boot winners in seasons past, would sit out the game on the bench. It was a ploy that was audacious and unthinkable only a few weeks earlier.
Chelsea stormed past a hapless Portsmouth, and put a shell-shocked Aston Villa to the sword. Arch-rivals Manchester United were undone at Old Trafford, by a Chelsea side turning in arguably their best all-round performance of the season. As Chelsea looked to grab the initiative in a decisive manner, and settle the debate once and for all, a shocking loss to Tottenham Hotspur sucked the wind right of the Blues’ sails. Echoes of the losses to Inter Milan, and the subsequent period of wandering in the wilderness, would’ve shaken the most resolute of the Shed End fans. But, not this team.
For once, this was a team showing a grit and determination, and a mental toughness, not usually associated with a side tagged “nearly men” famed for their costly last-minute slip-ups. Chelsea were suddenly a team that believed in destiny. As a miserly Stoke City defense was battered into oblivion, Chelsea’s titles hopes now lay primarily at Anfield – the venue of some of their greatest triumphs and their most humbling losses. Chelsea seemed weighed down by the expectations on them, as they started the game cautiously, but a horrendously timed back pass from a man who has come to symbolize everything good about Liverpool resulted in Chelsea receiving a much needed shot in the arm. A second goal from the talismanic Frank Lampard, would be enough for Chelsea to seal the tie and with it, ensure a perfect record against the erstwhile Big Four. The exuberance of Arsenal FC, the determination of Liverpool FC, and the dominance of United had all faded in the face of the relentless march of the rampant Blues.
The title-race would go down to the last game, an encounter with Wigan Athletic at home in Stamford Bridge. There was a sense of poetic justice, and revenge being a dish best served cold, when the team that ended Chelsea’s record-breaking run of wins at the start of the season was at the receiving end of the most devastating payback from the West Londoners. The Latics even had to suffer the ignominy of going a man down, a fate Chelsea had experienced earlier against them in their first loss of the season. It was almost as though every moment was being scripted. The game ended 8-0, with goals from Lampard, Kalou, Anelka, Drogba and Ashley Cole extinguishing any embers of hope that flickered at Old Trafford.
The temperamental Didier Drogba, more than made up for a sulking first half in the final game of the season, with a hat-trick in the second. Having gone into the last day, tied neck and neck with Wayne Rooney with the highest number of goals scored, despite having missed a month’s action, the Ivorian emerged winner of the Golden Boot with a comfortable margin of 3 astounding second-half goals.
It is a testament to the depth of Chelsea’s goal scoring ranks, that even if Didier’s hat-trick had not materialized, they were already well on their way to securing only their fourth league title in history. As celebratory shouts rang out all around Stamford Bridge, and the bit-players received their medals and share of adulation from an ecstatic crowd; the backbone of the club stood still, taking it all in.
Roman Abramovich watched on, his face characteristically writ with subdued joy, as the crowd bellowed their appreciation for the Russian. The triumphant Carlo Ancelotti, emboldened enough to deliver an unexpected address to the Stamford Bridge faithful, was hailed as a new monarch for the times – a marked difference from the grudging acceptance given to other Chelsea managers after the departure of The Special One. Didier Drogba worked himself and the crowd into a frenzy, savoring every moment of the season’s triumph that he played such an incredible part in shaping. Frank Lampard was his self-confident and assured self, as expected; poised, articulate yet positively beaming and thrilled to be making history again, Super Frankie was effusive in his praise of others while offering not even a modest acknowledgment of his own perennially under-rated contribution to the team’s cause.
The loudest cheer was reserved, however, for the man whose face has come to represent Chelsea FC – through the good times and the bad. From the giddy heights of banners acclaiming him as their ‘Captain. Leader. Legend’ to the darkest memories of the media’s public crucifixion of him, he saw the club’s fortunes rise and fall with him. It took a brave man to rebuild his scarred psyche and that of a club so dependent on him, and rejuvenate the Blues’ title-charge when he and the club looked their weakest.
When the last of the screams of joy have died out, and the drops of champagne have been drained off, and the blue and white ticker-tapes have been swept away, one man will know more than others that the biggest victory was not won on the eternal fields of green, but in the minds of mortal men.
John Terry, and Chelsea FC, had laid their demons to rest.