The most satisfying moment during José Mourinho’s all-too-short second stint as Chelsea manager had to be after the final whistle of the final league match last season, when everyone at the club finally got to sing and dance alongside the Premier League trophy they’d won in such commanding fashion. The second-best moment, I’d venture, was probably the season before, when everyone at the club got to sing and dance alongside the corpse of Liverpool’s title dream, the one they so cruelly slaughtered in cringingly humiliating fashion. This team will not get to savor that first kind of enjoyment, after a debacle of a season has put even a consolation prize like finishing fourth out of reach. The second kind, however, is still up for grabs.
Chelsea were able to cook up a bit of the delicious schadenfreude last weekend, when they beat their favorite rivals, Arsenal, 1-0. Everything was set up Arsenal’s way. Chelsea have long been the Gunners’ boogeymen, and Mourinho especially loves few things in life more than riling up Arsène Wenger before a match, backing up his talk on the pitch by winning, then talking even more reckless shit about the Frenchman after the game. Arsenal bumbling their way out of points against Chelsea is a tale as old as time, only this time it looked like it would have a different ending.
This Arsenal team didn’t have to face the fearsome Chelsea of just a year ago, skippered by the embodiment of their futile last decade; this Arsenal met a meek and cowed Chelsea who had mutinied against their former leader and who, the table would tell you, pose more threat to the relegation battlers than to a title challenger like Arsenal. In a season typified by an ascendent Premier League middle class and a relatively underperforming elite, Arsenal, of all clubs, stood atop the league as legitimate favorites. Crush this 14th-placed Chelsea team, and the Gunners could continue along their title charge, emboldened with the scalp of a bitter rival and prepared for sterner challenges that lie ahead.
Naturally, things didn’t go like this. Before the form of the match could really take shape, in the 18th minute Chelsea overwhelmed Arsenal’s butter-soft midfield and charged straight through to the heart of the defense. Willian laid a perfect center back-splitting through ball, and to prevent the impending one-on-one between Diego Costa and Petr Cech, Per Mertesacker took down the striker from behind, earning himself an easy red card. Costa would score the only goal of the game a handful of minutes later, and while the Blues never really dominated the match the way you’d expect being a man up, they nevertheless hung on to their advantage and won.
After Manchester City’s early form that saw them pasting practically every opponent, looking like this year’s version of last year’s Chelsea in terms of being wire-to-wire league leaders, Arsenal held steady right beside them and eventually overtook them when the Citizens began to stumble. For the past few months, then, Arsenal have enjoyed title favorite status.
The second shoe everyone expected to eventually drop—the Gunners’ annual debilitating string of injuries—arguably had already come to pass, as key players like Alexis Sánchez, Francis Coquelin, and Santi Cazorla have all missed significant time. Nevertheless, guided primarily by Mesut Özil himself—who has developed the power to decide when, where, and who should score, then ricochet the ball off that player’s head or foot from any and all conceivable angles—Arsenal have cruised along barely any worse for wear, and soon will have at least a couple of those players back in the fold. As well as Arsenal had done to fight their way into the catbird seat, there was every chance that they’d be even better equipped to fend off challengers when their injured reinforcements came back.
While one game in a 38-game season is just one in 38, every point matters in the race to heap up more than your opponent when the margins are as razor thin as they typically are in the Premier League. For an assortment of reasons—Chelsea’s odd place as a midtable side armed with (what we thought were?) a few world-class players, the fact that Arsenal hosted the match, that City dropped points the day before—Arsenal really could’ve used three points last weekend. Consider soccer analytics writer Michael Caley’s title projection right before the Arsenal-Chelsea match—
—to his projection after the game:
Rather than allowing Arsenal to snatch a key three points on their way to solidifying their grasp on the EPL trophy, Chelsea—well, mainly just Diego Costa, that magnificent bastard—flipped it on them and tightened things up. I’m not saying Arsenal will lose the title because of this one match—and especially because of the red card, they have no one to blame but themselves—but this one match really was a potentially critical missed opportunity. Chelsea’s blow was not quite of the 2014 Liverpool variety, but it could wind up similarly damaging in the long run. And regardless of its ultimate impact, I’m certain the win felt damn good.
With that in mind, plus the fact that most Premier League positioning considerations are fairly meaningless (no chance of the Champions League, and only a tiny one of Europa League) for them, the only real pleasure Chelsea can realistically gain for the rest of the league season would involve going up against other clubs with something to play for and sticking a shiv deep inside their guts, staring into their eyes as the life slowly drains away, and reveling in that dark and sinister ritual—not an insignificant source of pleasure, to be sure. So who can Chelsea and their fans look forward to potentially killing in the most agonizing way possible? Here’s the rest of their EPL fixtures, from Whoscored:
There’s lots of potential for carnage up there, as Chelsea could very well determine the fates of the Champions League qualifiers, the relegation candidates, and even the league championship itself. That home match against City in mid-April looks tantalizing, but that season finale at home against Leicester could be huge. Imagine the Foxes maintaining their position at or near the top of the table until then, and needing points in the final game to cap their miraculous season with the reward it deserves, be it entrance to the most prestigious club tournament in the world (very possible), or even maybe possibly well not really possibly but maybe the title itself (they are top of the table today, after all). And imagine a Chelsea team solidified in their 8th-place spot with nothing really to play for except the thrill of snuffing dreams. It’s an exquisitely terrifying prospect.
This season has already been a horror story for Chelsea; they now have the opportunity to switch the narrative, transforming themselves from victims at the start but into villains by the end. It would be a fitting tribute to their old boss, and tons of fun in its own right.
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