RUN-INS REMEMBERED

‘You don’t want to look too far ahead. Concentrate on yourselves every week; never take a game lightly whether the team’s at the top or the bottom of the league – they’re all as potentially difficult at this stage. It’s just about focus and taking that focus into every game. We have to get our own stuff right and give it everything. That’s all we can do.’
Frank Lampard, March 2014

The current season is now in its final quarter, that uniquely exciting period for all football fans who have hopes for their team, and to whet the appetite for the weeks ahead, the official Chelsea website looks back on five of our more memorable and varied run-ins in recent years.

We start with the 1998/99 season when we stood toe-to-toe for a time with Manchester United and Arsenal in the contest for the league title, and qualified for the Champions League for the very first time.

Attention then turns to a season that ended in last-day drama in 2003 as we again hunted down a precious Champions League position.

Three tilts at the title complete the selection, the ‘closedown’, as Jose Mourinho deemed it after the brilliant 2004/05 campaign, the exhausting and eventful end to 2006/07, and the near-perfect climax to 2009/10.

1998/99
First up, we travel back 15 years to a Chelsea side that had discovered some impressive and, at the time, unfamiliar consistency under the stewardship of player-manager Gianluca Vialli…

We had gone top of the table on Boxing Day in the midst of what was then a club record of 21 unbeaten games in England’s top flight; it was also the longest unbeaten run that season by any team in Europe. But that Christmas success at Southampton was marred by a knee ligament injury to one of the season’s best players, Gustavo Poyet. Our injury list was lengthened by the long-term absence of strikers Pierluigi Casiraghi and, in the new year, Tore Andre Flo.

Embroiled in a three-way race for the title as a dramatic Premiership season reached its climax, three consecutive draws in April put paid to our hopes of winning the championship for only the second time in our history. In the end, our third-placed finish – four points behind winners Manchester United, who were on their way to the Treble – was our best since 1970 and just reward for a term of continuous achievement; in contrast to the great peaks and troughs that marked so many of our seasons either side of that 1998/99 campaign.

Our third and final league defeat of the season – a 1-0 home reverse to West Ham for whom Frank Lampard was outstanding (pictured below) – was the precursor to a 10-game run-in that included six matches away from home. The first three of those were won impressively before a fourth game on the road in succession was drawn 0-0 at Middlesbrough, by no means a disastrous result.

Chelsea

Such was the pace set by Manchester United and Arsenal at the top – between them they lost just one game after Christmas – that there was almost no room for error, however. When a two-goal home lead over Leicester was surrendered in the final seven minutes following that draw on Teesside, it felt like our chance of going all the way was lost; confirmed the following Sunday following a turgid goalless draw against Sheffield Wednesday which came on the back of a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Real Mallorca.

For the game at Hillsborough we were without the unfit Ed de Goey, Graeme Le Saux, Dan Petrescu and Roberto Di Matteo, while Gianfranco Zola was rested. Frustratingly the fit-again Tore Andre Flo was on international duty.

‘It is difficult to cope when you have three games in one week because you don’t only expend energy physically but also mentally and that is more difficult to recover from,’ explained Zola. ‘Of course the team wants to win every time but you have to realise sometimes that if something goes wrong, that is normal. It might happen.’

So four of our final seven league games were drawn – against sides that finished the season in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th place – but the other six were won ensuring a higher points-per-game average in our final 10 games (2.2) than in our first 28 (1.89).

Champions League qualification was secured in our third last game following a brilliant victory over fourth-placed Leeds at the Bridge (pictured top). The now-fit Poyet headed the game’s only goal and the following season we would compete with Europe’s elite for the first time ever.

‘It was a good season but maybe we needed to be a bit more pushy at the end,’ considered Albert Ferrer, our former Spanish right-back. ‘Sometimes we were a little too conformist.’

2002/03
Next up we look back on a season that was in the balance until the very end…

By the start of the 2002/03 season Chelsea had financial worries, so finishing in the top four – and thus qualifying for the Champions League – was not just an aspiration but rather an imperative if the club was to keep challenging near the top in the way we had grown used to doing.

With 10 games to go we were fourth but only on goal difference ahead of the Merseyside pairing of Everton and Liverpool. The approach to the finish line included Carlton Cole-inspired wins over Bolton and Sunderland but also tame defeats at Aston Villa and soon-to-be-relegated West Ham, while a 4-1 thrashing of Everton at the Bridge on Easter Monday put the Toffees out of contention for that elusive fourth spot.

Our penultimate-day loss at Upton Park might have proved more damaging had it not been for Manchester City and in particular Nicolas Anelka. He netted a match-winning brace against Liverpool meaning we only had to draw, and not win, our final-day showdown with the Reds.

A tense season had come down to just that one game at Stamford Bridge. ‘It was being made out to be the be-all and end-all,’ said Frank Lampard afterwards. ‘We knew we could go skint if we didn’t qualify.’

Happily, despite conceding first, we would go on to win 2-1. ‘Claudio Ranieri took his foot off the pedal a little bit this week which worked really well for us because we lasted 90 minutes,’ revealed Graeme Le Saux about the training leading up to the match. ‘We didn’t have a dip in fitness as we have done in some home games, and he deserves credit for that.’

Chelsea

A little over a month after that victory Roman Abramovich bought the club and our financial turnaround was well and truly complete, and the run-in before ensured Champions League football would be part of the new Chelsea era from the very start.

2004/05
We hadn’t won the league title for 50 years. It was the 100th anniversary of the club’s foundation. Under new manager Jose Mourinho, the team proved ruthless and brilliant in equal measure…

Abramovich’s acquisition of the club raised expectations in west London and they only heightened when Jose Mourinho took over in the summer of 2004. With good reason. The most successful season in both our and English football’s top-flight history ensued, with an astonishing total of 95 points amassed as Arsenal’s unbeaten side from the 2003/04 were left trailing in our wake.

With 28 games gone the Blues were averaging an extraordinary 2.54 points a game, enough to see us top of the table, eight points clear and with a game in hand. Seven victories and three draws (at 2.4 points a game, marginally down on the year’s average) were picked up in a run-in which Mourinho later described as the ‘third period’ of the season, one of ‘closedown and injuries. Injuries meant reduced power in the team, but at the same time we were closing in to be champions. It was time to play for points again.’

That was in contrast to the spectacular middle three months of the season when goals and clean sheets were racked up and, as Mourinho put it, ‘week after week the distance between us and the others got bigger and bigger.’

We had one hand on the title following a 3-1 home victory over Fulham that was inspired by the fit-again Arjen Robben, the flying Dutchman having missed the previous 14 games. European heartbreak at the semi-final stage against Liverpool could possibly be put down to those late-season exertions and injuries, but on the domestic front – with a Carling Cup triumph to factor in too – a season that rarely dipped below outstanding was emphatically and decisively closed out as we lifted the League Championship for the first time since 1955.

Chelsea

2006/07
‘Sometimes when you win a lot of things, the moment you lose is because you didn’t give everything, the commitment and ambition is not the same. You lose mental competitive qualities. That is when you have to blame yourself and the players – and this season was the opposite of that. People gave even more because in those seasons there were no real problems and we were winning, winning, winning.’

That was Jose Mourinho’s verdict after a 1-1 draw at Arsenal in May 2007 confirmed we would relinquish the Premier League trophy so firmly held in our grasp since 2005. Though the season ended without a third successive title triumph it was still one of the most extraordinary campaigns in our history. Across the four competitions we entered, only one fixture was not fulfilled – the Champions League final, following yet more trauma on Merseyside.

Injuries – perhaps most famously the one which Petr Cech suffered at Reading that October – ravaged Mourinho’s men throughout the season and ensured that even a squad as powerfully-assembled as ours was often down to the bare bones.

A fearsome nine-game winning run in the league that spanned January to April – with just one goal conceded – kept us in touch with Manchester United. The Carling Cup was also captured in that period.

We had been nine points behind Man United with 10 games to go but having not won the league themselves since 2003 they showed nerves. Their loss at Portsmouth and a patchy home draw with Middlesbrough gave Chelsea the chance to cut the deficit to a single point.

But a 0-0 draw at Newcastle ended our winning sequence and when a crucial lead was lost at home to Bolton, cruelly coinciding with a superb United recovery at Everton, it seemed mental and physical fatigue had finally caught up with the Blues. The 2006/07 season had one more treat left in store, though, an FA Cup success against United at the new Wembley. It was a welcome and worthy end to a term perhaps less-venerated than the previous two under Mourinho but with two cups won, it was a season still special.

Chelsea

2009/10
A couple of dips in form earlier in 2009/10 ensured we would have to wait until the final day of the league season to see if we would be crowned champions for the first time in four years…

It was Chelsea and Man United again battling it out to be crowned England’s finest in Carlo Ancelotti’s first season in charge. A disappointing round of 16 Champions League exit to Mourinho’s Inter appeared to galvanise the team to fight back and win silverware on the domestic scene, though the European hangover was extended to a 1-1 draw at Blackburn, the first of our final 10 league games of the season.

Going into those we were two points behind United but with a game in hand, while our goal difference of +39 was marginally inferior to our closest challengers’ +42. Huge victories over Portsmouth and Aston Villa got things back on track before a decisive 2-1 win at Old Trafford (pictured below) nudged us a point clear of United with five games to go. That lead was extended when our game in hand was won, but cut back to a single point again when a last-minute Paul Scholes winner at local rivals Man City preceded a poor Chelsea performance at Tottenham and a 2-1 defeat.

Chelsea  

‘We don’t need to look at anybody else’s result and this has been our philosophy for some time now,’ said Ancelotti of his table-toppers. ‘We just need to win our own games and stay at the top.’ Three points were picked up at home to Stoke and away to Liverpool, before an 8-0 thrashing of Wigan ‘showed we deserved to win the title’, in the words of Frank Lampard.

The midfielder had played a vital role in our goal-crazy final flurry (we scored 38 and conceded six in our last 10 games, accelerating our goal difference to +71, well ahead of Man Utd’s +58) – and he considered the title triumph following that final-day romp.

‘It’s really special because there have been ups and downs this season,’ said Lampard. ‘After the Inter Milan tie people expected us to die away and not win the league but we showed a lot of courage and a lot of quality to come through the way we did.’

Salomon Kalou, a then-teammate of Lampard’s and another who played a significant role in the season’s closing weeks, explained how he dealt with the tense finale.

‘When you have such a good prize at the end the adrenalin makes you not think about being tired,’ the Ivorian said. ‘Over the whole season you can’t play at the same level and be on top every time. The difference in winning the title is when you are not on top form you have to come back to the basics where you fight for every game. That is what we do well.’

That fight was extended to the following week when we beat Portsmouth at Wembley in the FA Cup final, our run-in made all the sweeter courtesy of our maiden Double.

By Rupert Cane

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