The Hard Tackle looks back on a positive 2016 for Chelsea Football Club and lists out some memorable moments the Stamford Bridge faithful will look back upon fondly.
For Chelsea, 2016 was a year that marked a necessary transition from the torturous final few months of the Mourinho era to the flamboyant stewardship of Antonio Conte with Guus Hiddink acting as a more than capable medium.
In fact the ‘transition’ was so good that the Blues would have won the league had it spanned over the course of the past 12 months.
That said, there were many individual moments that Chelsea supporters will look back with pride as their side comes into 2017 with dreams of securing another Premier League title.
The Hard Tackle looks back on some of those blockbuster moments that could serve as a positive reminder of what we can expect from the Londoners in 2017.
Hazard’s dramatic title winner
Almost exactly a year after he clinched the goal to win Chelsea the 2014-15 league title, Eden Hazard, who had up until then endured a stinker of a season for the Blues, notched the decisive equalizer against Tottenham Hotspur to help Leicester City achieve their unlikely Premier League dream.
Having gone 2-0 down to keep Spurs in with a tiny chance of nicking the title off Leicester City, Chelsea looked set to wage a comeback when Gary Cahill pulled one back for the Blues.
However, with 7 minutes left on the clock, hopes of halting the North Londoners were slipping away until Hazard produced a moment that’ll live long in the memory of every Chelsea fan, let alone title clinching Leicester City.
The celebrations in the Chelsea camp were wild, almost to suggest they had won the title. That goal and result most certainly meant something to a batch of players who had gone through hell and the frightening, yet outlandish, prospect of relegation at one point of time before they revived their season once again to finish in a respectable 10th place.
Hazard, more than anyone, would testify to that. The Belgian, for large parts of the season, looked a shadow of his imperious best from little over a year ago and the goal re-affirmed in part his quality and probably a sign of things to come.
Almost six months on from that fiery encounter, Hazard has come a long way and has once again established himself as a key figure in the Chelsea XI under Antonio Conte.
The Italian Job – Appointment of Antonio Conte
Coming at the back of relinquishing his role as Italy’s head coach, Conte had a massive job on his hands to rebuild a Chelsea side that were scarred by the delirious lows of the 2015-16 campaign.
His exploits at the Euros gave supporters considerable amount of hope regarding the future, although there were still doubts whether the boss would cut it in the Premier League.
Conte came with a solid title winning pedigree from his days at Juventus and while there was no silverware to show for from his time with the Italian national side, his work certainly spoke volumes of what Chelsea fans could come to expect out of him.
The 47-year-old was the latest in a glowing list of Italians to have assumed the managerial role at Stamford bridge and whether he’ll be as successful as some of his predecessors like Carlo Ancellotti remains to be seen.
So far, Conte has done a marvelous job at the club and converting the performances on the pitch to trophies on the cabinet is all that’s left.
2016 would have been an immensely encouraging and satisfying teaser of ‘Don’ Conte’s Chelsea reign and fans will be eager to witness the future of their club in the able hands of the Italian tactician going into 2017.
In a calendar year where a number of top bosses arrived on English soil and given the competitive nature of the Premier League, doubts were cast whether Conte will be able to make things work for Chelsea.
Nobody’s doubting him now. After a jittery start to life at Stamford Bridge, Conte has established his tactics and style of play and made Chelsea a team to beat in the Premier League.
That, however, came after the Blues were dealt two telling blows at the hands of Liverpool and Arsenal in the space of one September week. The losses against the two English heavy-weights undoubtedly was a spark that lit the fuse as the Italian returned to his boardroom to work on the tactics that would suit his side’s strengths.
A change in formation from the manager thereon set alight a remarkable thirteen game winning run that has since seen his team sit six points clear at the top of the table.
Conte began to deploy a 3-4-3 formation for the Blues that could transition into a 5-4-1 when on the defense, leaving some much needed flexibility for the boss to exploit. Cezar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill formed the back three with Kante and Matic primarily occupying the centre-midfield spots in front of them.
Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have occupied the wing-back roles and the former seems to be relishing the defensive role that has sparked new life into his Chelsea career. The performance of the Nigerian was a key factor in the Blues going on the remarkable run of form like they did.
The Blues were eventually halted in their tracks by a Tottenham side on the first game after the New Year as they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane.
Despite the loss, the Blues sit 5 points clear at the top of the table and with no European football, have all it takes to go the distance and secure their second league title in three years.
Moreover, Conte’s energy and spirit has spread to the players and fans, and has helped bring back the feel good factor around Stamford Bridge.
Demolition job of Mourinho-led Manchester United
Make no mistake, Jose Mourinho still remains in the hearts of many Chelsea supporters and is regarded highly despite the disastrous capitulation of the team under his tutelage during the first half of the 2015-16 campaign.
Even his sacking was met with disdain among a majority of the supporters. The Stamford Bridge faithful also chose to turn against their own team when they turned in an impressive performance as soon as Guus Hiddink took charge, leaving many with the impression that Mourinho had lost his players and wasn’t in good terms with many of them.
That said, his subsequent move to Manchester United in the summer left a rather bitter taste in the mouth of Chelsea supporters. So the atmosphere was understandably awkward upon his return to the Bridge in October.
But all of it disappeared in a matter of 30 seconds after kick-off when Pedro sent the Blues ahead in spectacular fashion, leaving Mourinho stunned. What followed over the course of the ensuing 90 minutes would be utter humiliation for any manager, let alone the Portuguese.
Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante all joined the party by adding strikes of their own to help Chelsea finish the afternoon with the scoreline reading a resounding 4-0.
The domination, owing to Conte’s tactical shift, left United clueless for the entirety of the game as they struggled to affect a similar threat on Courtois’ goal at the other end.
It was a memorable afternoon for all supporters that were witness to the spectacle and it was the first of many gritty performances from Conte’s side enroute their incredible 13-game winning run.
N’Golo Kante – signing of the season, again?
It’s not often a player is regarded as the signing of the season for two years running but N’Golo Kante has seemingly made a habit out of it. He was heralded as the unsung hero of Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League triumph in 2015-16 and has since moved to Chelsea and is spearheading another title challenge with the London club.
The 25-year-old moved to Leicester from Ligue 1 outfit SM Caen in 2015 in a transfer that failed to muster little tangible attention from any of the mainstream media until the season began to unfurl.
However, needless to say, there was much hype and fanfare surrounding his £30 million move from the Foxes to Chelsea last summer. And just like his time at the East Midlands, the player has shown a knack for carrying out the dirty work and securing the midfield for his side acting as an able stumbling block for the opposition attack before they attempt to unlock the defence.
With just half a season gone, the Frenchman has enjoyed long spells in the first team having already featured in 19 league games along with a solitary EFL Cup appearance to his credit.
It’s the precious intangibles that Kante get’s right. He most certainly isn’t a man of goals and assists but it’s his hardwork in midfield that often initiates goal scoring opportunities for their attackers up front.
His run with the side explains how he has quickly established himself as a vital cog in that Chelsea midfield and is silently going about his job while the attacking force takes the plaudits.
— SPORF (@Sporf) December 30, 2016
Should the Blues go on to secure the Premier League title, they will have quite a few to thank for. But the list wouldn’t be complete without Kante’s name.
That’s just how impactful a signing he has been for Chelsea and that is why The Hard Tackle has chosen the Frenchman’s signing as one of the top moments for the club in 2016.