FA Cup: Quarter-finals
Capital One Cup: Round Four
Champions League: Round of 16
Not a single footballing observer of sound mind would have predicted Chelsea not to at least threaten to successfully defend the Premier League title that they won so convincingly in 2015, so it was more than a little startling to witness such an incredible decline that some were discussing the prospect of a potential relegation as the season headed into the festive period.
The opening months made of mockery of the team’s reputation as they suffered defeat after defeat and all kinds of fragilities were exposed before disbelieving supporters and audiences from all over the world. What made it all the more miraculous was that Jose Mourinho was still the manager; a man whose mere presence is more or less enough to guarantee success thanks to his unwavering self belief, winning mentality and tactical nous.
After a poor pre-season which the squad emerged from somewhat under-prepared, they were beaten in the Community Shield by Arsenal before the crisis well and truly began. The sending off of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the opening Premier League game against Swansea City and the 2-2 draw that ensued ended up being overshadowed by a spat between Mourinho and his medical staff, whom he called ‘impulsive and naive’ for running on to the pitch to treat the stricken Eden Hazard.
The Portuguese came in for severe criticism for his comments but was unwilling to back down, with club doctor Eva Carneiro eventually leaving the club and pursuing a legal case against Mourinho for constructive dismissal. There were numerous matters on the field to contend with, however, as the champions suffered a chastening 3-0 loss at Manchester City before the short-lived boost given to them by the arrival of Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez was quickly extinguished by a shock home loss to Crystal Palace and a dire 3-1 reversal at Everton.
By this time everyone across the country and further afield seemed to be asking the same question: WHAT ON EARTH HAS HAPPENED TO CHELSEA??? Many possible answers were put forward, but the continuing inability of Mourinho to find a way of restoring the team’s spark and defensive solidity was simply inexplicable. Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, three players so influential to their title success, now appeared to be a shadow of their former selves; their threat easily nullified by opponents.
Of the entire squad, only Willian looked to be playing to his capabilities. The Brazilian playmaker was constantly a standout performer and as such stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. At times he single-handedly led the Blues assault, often as the result of a burgeoning aptitude for the taking of set-pieces.
As the poor results continued and realistic prospects of even making a bid for the top four were diminishing quickly before their eyes, Mourinho became increasingly irritable and increasingly desperate in his bid to avert their slide, making regular alterations to his tactics and personnel, and even publically criticising his players with the aim of provoking a response. A lengthy monologue following defeat at home to Southampton came a week prior to a total media blackout in the aftermath of yet another disappointing day at West Ham United.
Making it through the group stages of the Champions League was a slight consolation, but Mourinho was a beaten man by the time defeats were suffered in December at the hands of Bournemouth and eventual title winners Leicester City. Shortly after he parted company with the club and it quickly emerged the extent to which the relationship between manager and players had gradually broken down. Sporting director Michael Emenalo cited this ‘palpable discord’ as the reason for Mourinho’s removal.
A short-term fix was needed, so just as they did back in 2009 the club called upon Guus Hiddink; the experienced and much-travelled Dutchman who in recent years has always been employed just when it looks as though he is on the cusp of announcing his retirement. He enjoyed great success in 2009, but this task was much bigger given the team’s position in the league and the extent to which the team was underperforming.
Supporters angry at the players for supposedly forcing Mourinho’s exit gradually found reasons to be cheerful again as Hiddink immediately galvanised the squad into putting together an unbeaten run that lifted them back towards the top half of the table. It was far from vintage stuff as too many draws stunted their progress, but it was a clear improvement on what had gone before it and a degree of resilience was beginning to take shape again, spearheaded by the unlikely figure of John Obi Mikel.
The period of good results came to an abrupt end in early March as their Champions League campaign was ended at the hands of a superior Paris St. Germain side, and just days later they were left with nothing to fight for as another poor showing at Everton saw them punished by their former striker Romelu Lukaku, thus eliminating them from the FA Cup.
Lukaku was not the only former Chelsea youngster to come back to haunt the club this season as Kevin de Bruyne proved a point for Man City at Stamford Bridge in mid-April, a week after Hiddink had suffered just his second ever Premier League loss, against Swansea City. By then a top half finish was virtually guaranteed and it became a case of blooding some youngsters and helping stars such as Hazard return to something close to their best.
It was almost surreal to see the club go by almost unnoticed in the final weeks of the season, only taking centre stage when they faced a club fighting at either end of the table, most notably by producing the comeback that handed the title to Leicester. The Foxes provided the opposition for Hiddink’s final game, a 1-1 draw, and he at least could depart again with his reputation intact.
The new man in charge will be one of the world’s most highly thought of managers, Antonio Conte. He has a job on his hands to pick up the bones of this awful season, but a crumb of comfort for the former Juventus boss is that it cannot surely get any worse. There will be no Europen football either, so the road to recovery will provide stark reminders of how far Chelsea have sunk since those jubilant scenes of a little over a year ago.