Premier League season review: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Cardiff, Chelsea
Premier League: 4th
Champions League: Round of 16
FA Cup: Winners/finalists
League Cup: Fourth round
A familiar pre-season glumness lingered over the Emirates Stadium. Exasperated at another summer without serious investment in players, the ire of Arsenal supporters was only intensified by a humiliation at home to Aston Villa on the opening day.
Few managers are as steadfast as Arsene Wenger, though, and he'd learned the lessons of an ill-considered transfer spree in 2011. Instead he went for quality over quantity, recruiting a genuine superstar in playmaker Mesut Ozil.
The Gunners were galvanised. Before September ended, they were top of the Premier League pile. For years, onlookers bemoaned the lack of a defensive enforcer - but could it have been that, rather than a few Indians, Arsenal just needed another chief?
Not quite. The New Year brought new problems for Wenger as both Theo Walcott and a revitalized Aaron Ramsey both got injured. Already delicate, the attacking unit was seriously damaged. But no fresh faces arrived and things started to go badly wrong.
Rampant Liverpool put five past the Gunners at Anfield, before Chelsea's Jose Mourinho - who had referred to Wenger as a "specialist in failure" - ruined the Frenchman's 1000th match in charge with a 6-0 victory.
Everton then relegated Arsenal from title challengers to Europa League candidates in a matter of weeks. The knives were being sharpened. But the usual late-season resilience kicked in and, coupled with a Toffees collapse, fourth place was ensured again.
With the FA Cup final still to come, it's paramount that Arsenal claim their first silverware since 2005 if supporters are to feel like progress is being made.
Player of the season: If injury hadn't cruelly interrupted Aaron Ramsey's season, it's likely that he would have been challenging for individual honours after scoring 14 goals in just 31 appearances. It's no coincidence that Arsenal's dip in form corresponded with Ramsey's thigh problem; it could have been a far more successful season had the Welshman stayed fit.
Best moment of the season: The first 48 hours of September inspired hope in the hearts of every Gunners supporter. First, bitter rivals Tottenham were dispatched (the first of three victories over the campaign) before Mesut Ozil's silky feet waltzed through the doors at the Emirates Stadium. Ozil's form has ebbed and flowed, but Arsenal fans needed renewed proof that they could still attract the marquee footballers.
Worst moment of the season: The 1000th match of Arsene Wenger's reign wasn't supposed to end in a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of nemesis Jose Mourinho, but that's how the narrative played out. The Chelsea boss appeared to thoroughly enjoy the rout, bathing in a pool of Wenger's tears as title hopes were all but extinguished.
Premier League: 15th
FA Cup: Third round
League Cup: Third round
Aston Villa's slide into mediocrity has been stark. In the late part of the last decade, the Villains finished 6th in three consecutive seasons. For the last three campaigns, read 16th, 15th and 15th.
The campaign never really got going for Villa, whose opening day 3-1 win at Arsenal was nothing but a false dawn. But while Villa wandered through the season, seemingly dazed and confused, Paul Lambert's men never appeared to threaten the relegation zone.
Four consecutive defeats in December had a large section of supporters calling for the manager's head. But Villa were still only 13th in the division, thankful that other clubs had their own problems too.
The Villains' dreary cloak was brightened by occasional polka dots, though many put results like the 1-0 win over Chelsea down to the complacency of opponents more than anything else. It looked like that March victory put Villa safe, but five defeats in the next six meant they had to wait until the penultimate game to ensure Premier League football.
Time has to be running out for Lambert, and there are rumours that owner Randy Lerner has had enough too.
Player of the season: There were flashes of brilliance from Fabian Delph and Ron Vlaar showed an invaluable level of competency at the heart of the backline, but Villa would probably have been relegated were it not for Brad Guzan. The American stopper was solid as the last line of defence. And he had to be.
Best moment of the season: The 3-2 home win over Manchester City in late September - weeks after beating Arsenal at the Emirates - saw Villa fans tempted to dream that Paul Lambert's philosophies were finally coming to fruition. With a comparatively kind run of fixtures to come, Villa were well placed in the top half at that point.
Worst moment of the season: Aston Villa equalled their worst ever home record last season with nine defeats. But when relegation-threatened, notoriously poor travellers Fulham headed to Villa Park this season in early April, few expected the tally to be taken to an unrivalled ten home turnovers in 2013/14. Hugo Rodallega's goal ensured that that happened, and Villa hit rock bottom.
Premier League: 20th
FA Cup: Fifth round
League Cup: Third round
If Vincent Tan is the man in charge, you know you're in for a dramatic season, and so it proved at newly-promoted Cardiff City.
The Bluebirds, whose fans remain up in arms about the change from blue to red shirts, spent big in the summer, with boss Malky Mackay shelling out over £30m on eight recruits. They appeared to be shrewd purchases early on, with Cardiff beating Manchester City, Fulham and their bitter rivals Swansea.
But things soon turned sour. Tan was unhappy that Mackay planned on making more signings in January, insisting that the summer buys hadn't performed so far. The owner disposed of the club's head of recruitment, a close friend of Mackay, and rumours circled that he asked the manager to resign.
The Scot refused, clinging onto his post until late December when a defeat to Southampton left the club teetering precariously above the drop zone. He was sacked and replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was allowed the funds to tinker with the squad further as he brought in seven players to usher in a new style in south Wales.
But the players couldn't adjust quickly enough, and Solskjaer could only record three more wins. A dismal 4-0 hammering at Sunderland effectively sealed their fate.
Player of the season: Cardiff's on-pitch woes would have been far worse this season, had it not been for the excellent David Marshall between the posts. The points that the Bluebirds have been able to scrape together this season were largely down to the Scot's shot-stopping, which has seen him linked with a summer move to Liverpool.
Best moment of the season: There was a time, not so long ago, when all seemed hunky-dory at Cardiff City Stadium. Back in November, Malky Mackay still had the top job and the Bluebirds hopped above Swansea to a cosy 12th in the Premier League after a Steven Caulker goal gave them a priceless win over their bitter rivals.
Worst moment of the season: It became clear that the managerial gamble was not going to pay off when fellow promoted side Hull City - themselves relatively benign in goal scoring terms - thumped four past Cardiff on their own turf in late February. Mathematically, Solskjaer's men could easily still survive but the result deflated everyone at the club.
Premier League: 3rd
Champions League: Semi-finals
FA Cup: Fifth round
League Cup: Fifth round
Jose Mourinho insists that his first campaign back at the helm at Chelsea has been a disappointing one. Indeed, he could only equal the 3rd place finish which Rafa Benitez delivered a year earlier - and couldn't match the Spaniard's silverware tally.
The beginnings of the Blues' major shortcoming came before the summer transfer window closed. Romelu Lukaku was surprisingly handed off to Everton, leaving the misfiring duo of Fernando Torres and Demba Ba to lead the Chelsea line.
But Mourinho did add Samuel Eto'o to his set of forwards and Chelsea were flying early on, winning six consecutive matches in October and keeping pace with the early Premier League leaders.
Over the course of the season, Mourinho's men didn't have a problem in the big games; the Portuguese exhibited tactical masterstrokes to get results at Manchester City and Liverpool. But it was on the potential banana skins that Chelsea ended up slipping: Villa, Palace, Sunderland, Stoke and Newcastle all aggravating the west Londoners.
Champions League success would have provided a nice consolation to the Premier League shortcomings. But the lure of an all-Madrid final motivated Atletico as they eased past their opponents in the last four.
Mourinho's invincibility has effectively evaporated. Will Roman Abramovich accept more dissatisfaction next season?
Player of the season: When on top form, Eden Hazard was impossible to stop, but much of Chelsea's success has been down to their defence. While John Terry and Gary Cahill have built on their partnership, it's Cesar Azpilicueta who has caught the eye. Switched to the unfamiliarity of left-back, he's been unfazed by it, relegating Ashley Cole to the bench.
Best moment of the season: In early February, the Premier League title was still up-for-grabs, with four teams in the race. And when Chelsea went to the Etihad Stadium and emerged with a victory after a tremendously disciplined performance, they were rightly installed as many pundits' favourites.
Worst moment of the season: But it's not the blockbuster matches which have been a problem for the Blues. And while losses at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace were blows, it wasn't terminal until Jose Mourinho's sacrosanct record at Stamford Bridge came crashing down. Sunderland's 2-1 victory, courtesy of a Fabio Borini penalty, angered Mourinho and ended any lingering title hopes.
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