It is said that 'Winners are not the ones who never fail, but ones who never quit.'
Chelsea's relentless march to their fifth Premier League title has pretty much been all about that. While the other heavyweights fell by the wayside as the pressure mounted, the Blues had answers for every question thrown at them.
Eventually on Friday night, the league ran out of questions. Chelsea put in a performance that was hardly artistic against a West Brom side, which was million miles away from being that themselves. The Baggies sat back in numbers closing down any room that the Chelsea players found in their box. Chelsea’s challenge was to break down a defensive wall, well-drilled and well-equipped to carry out such organised rearguard action.
When it seemed Chelsea were running out of ideas, they conjured up one out of nowhere. Antonio Conte took off Eden Hazard and Pedro, two of Chelsea's most creative players, and replaced them with the energetic Willian and Michy Batshuayi, the big money summer signing who has appeared to be out of place at the west London club.
But the young Belgian striker was at the right place at the right time to turn in Chelsea's title-clincher after a scrappy move unlocked the tight West Brom defence. The Blues had their win. It wasn't impressive, the opponents left no room for it to be one. But the key was that Chelsea found a way. The win in a nutshell provided the rationale for Chelsea's triumph.
It weren't Chelsea's good days that got them to the pinnacle of the English game, but the number of bad days which the Blues had made count in their favour that did. Their journey to being champions was landmarked by their failures, more than their resounding victories.
The first battle on the road to the title was mental. Conte inherited a broken dressing room full of sulking players looking for moves to get them out of the misery inflicted by the season gone by. The confidence and the self-esteem of those Chelsea players was at an all-time low. The dressing room needed a shake up and Conte provided exactly that.
The process was gradual. The Italian's energy on the touchline and perhaps on the training ground was the initial spark to reinvigorate the forgotten champion in these players. Chelsea started with three straight wins, before the honeymoon period came to a crashing end after defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.
But before they could ruin another campaign for Chelsea, their Italian manager acted. The system which Chelsea played had run its full cycle. Conte, who gave the system time to revive in the first six matches, eventually ditched it for a formula of his own and one that had helped him build whatever pedigree he had as a coach.
The Italian was known to use a 3-5-2 at Juventus and with the Italian national team, but he tweaked it to a 3-4-3 to get the best out of the personnel at Chelsea. For the players who were suffering for a long time, it provided hope to put an end to it.
Conte's knowledge of the system, and the free weeks which Chelsea enjoyed due to the lack of Champions League football meant the Blues conjured up a winning formula. It provided an outlet to the Chelsea players to get their swagger back, and more importantly right the wrongs that threatened to blemish their careers.
A lot of hard work went into perfecting the system, but it yielded instant results. Chelsea went on a 13-game winning run from October to January, a period where every other team went through slumps.
It wasn't just the tactical genius that Conte used to turn things around at Chelsea. It was his passion for the game and incessant desire to succeed that got the Blues players dancing to his tune.
"He put trust and belief in all of the players and then we started winning matches. Quite easily, he just turned things around. He put his trust and belief in all of us that we could win matches, that we could win the League," Pedro told The Telegraph in an interview.
“I have worked with many managers, but this is the one who has made us train the hardest, definitely," he added.
The first six games in that 13-match winning streak were a bit of a cruise for the Blues. They scored 17 goals without reply and decimated anything that was put before them.
Chelsea's credentials were put to a stern test by Tottenham and Manchester City, who led the Blues in the two encounters and at a point threatened to really run home the advantage. But Chelsea hung on in the game, waited for their chances. Some came their way, while some had to be conjured up. In the end Chelsea added two more victories that cemented their place at the top of the table.
The Blues had weathered storms to find their way to two massive wins and that set the tone for the rest of the year. Three 1-0 wins followed, before an in-form Bournemouth were dispatched 3-0 by a Chelsea side without Costa and N'Golo Kante, two of their best players till that point.
The run came to a rather meek ending at White Hart Lane, but not before equalling a Premier League record for most consecutive wins in one single season. That surge from the Blues broke the back of the title race, and from there on it was always a catching up job for the rest. At some point of the season, some team had to match that winning run to have a chance to catch Chelsea.
But a trip to champions Leicester amidst rumours of a bust up between Conte and Costa was to test Chelsea's mettle, especially after seeing their winning run snapped.
Eventually, a comfortable 3-0 demolition of Leicester put the possibility of a mid-season slump to bed. A draw away to Liverpool and a win at home against Arsenal followed and Chelsea appeared to have one hand on the trophy. The results were brilliant but the Blues were being stretched in every game they played. A defence that was barely breached in the first half of the season, struggled to keep a clean sheet.
The fixtures didn't get any easier, but Chelsea always had a match-winner at hand. Gary Cahill netted a late winner away at Stoke, a game which is often a marker separating the men from the boys. Conte's men didn't quite have to do it on a cold night at the Britannia, but three points that helped them to a ten-point lead at the top of the table was almost defining.
Just when it seemed it was matter of when rather than if for Chelsea, Crystal Palace stunned them at the Bridge. The gap was cut to seven points and Tottenham who were giving chase were growing in momentum. A clash with Manchester City followed. Pep Guardiola's men took control of the ball from minute one, but Chelsea held their nerve. Going into the second half with a 2-1 lead, the Blues protected the advantage despite a late surge from City to stay seven points clear.
There was to be another defeat for Chelsea. It came at the hands of ex-manager Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United side at Old Trafford to throw the title race wide open with the gap down to just four points. A FA Cup semifinal against their biggest challengers Tottenham awaited them.
Spurs' form made them favourites not just to make the FA Cup final, but also to deal a psychological blow in the title race. Conte puzzled everyone as he left Hazard and Costa on the bench in the game. But as it panned out, the move proved to be a masterstroke. Chelsea's more energetic front three surprised Tottenham who despite scoring two beautiful goals, were condemned to defeat by the Blues.
Once again when fingers were pointed at Chelsea, doubts were cast about their credentials, they came up with the goods. They had it in them to ride through the toughest of times and also come up trumps. Everton at Goodison Park was the final major hurdle that Chelsea had and after being thwarted for over an hour in that game, Pedro scored a sensational goal to put Chelsea on their way to a 3-0 win. For large parts of that game it looked like Chelsea were going to come unstuck, but once again when it mattered the most they produced the moment of brilliance to lift themselves.
Manchester United couldn't stop a string of draws at home, Manchester City at times couldn't make the most of their dominance, Liverpool failed to recover from a mid-season slump, Arsenal struggled to stop the rot away from home and Tottenham at a point found it too difficult to win a game on the road.
While the rest had streaks of suffering, Chelsea ensured their failings went no further than small blips. They weren't blessed with a squad of players that was head and shoulders above the rest, but they found a mentality that enabled them to take every setback in their stride, bounce back, and produce the desired results when it was required the most.
To sum it up, what cut Chelsea apart from the rest was not giving up when the winds were against them and as it's said, the difference between winning and losing is quite often not quitting. Chelsea's Premier League triumph in 2016/17 won't be remembered for how many goals they scored or how many clean sheets they kept, but for showing an endless desire for redemption that overpowered everything else.
Published Date: May 13, 2017 15:17 PM | Updated Date: May 13, 2017 15:20 PM