The official Chelsea website continues the celebrations by looking back at a nine-month tale of transformation and carefully crafted football with a very happy ending...
‘We know this year won’t be easy for us. If we think about the 10th position, it was a bad season for us. We all know that, but we must think about the present and work hard every day, week and month to achieve something important for us, the club and the fans. The supporters need to find a team who are ready to fight until the end to compete with others.
'I hope we can surprise people, that there is a small flame flickering that can grow into a blazing inferno.’
When Antonio Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge last July, on the back of a good European Championships in charge of his native Italy, he inherited a squad full of ability but low on confidence.
Most had experienced the ups and downs of the two previous years: the fantastic title and League Cup-winning 2014/15 campaign, and then the disappointment that followed as we recorded our lowest points tally for a couple of decades.
The big question, then, was how they would respond to their new boss’s methods. This was a man who had galvanised Juventus – the club he represented for the majority of his impressive playing career – by winning three Serie A titles in a row and even going a whole campaign undefeated. They had finished seventh the season before Conte took over, and now, on the back of the foundations he laid, they will soon be competing in their second European Cup final in three years.
At Euro 2016, his Italy side reached the quarter-finals, only defeated on penalties by Germany. Conte’s tactical acumen and passion stood out in France, and the feeling was those qualities would stand him in good stead for a Premier League campaign that looked set to be the most competitive ever.
There were six realistic title contenders, plus reigning champions Leicester City and others who perhaps harboured hopes of repeating the Foxes’ astonishing triumph.
The bookmakers installed Conte’s Chelsea as fourth favourites before a ball was kicked. Not many in the media felt we could do it: the BBC, for example, asked 33 of their pundits and commentators to predict the top four. Most thought Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United would emerge on top. Three went for Chelsea (a tip of the hat, then, to Trevor Sinclair and Match of the Day commentators John Motson and Steve Wilson!).
‘We are pleased to have N’Golo with us. I think he is a player that doesn’t speak a lot but he does fight and it’s very important, a good guy, humble and with a great will to work.’
Pat Nevin, of this parish, explained in the same prediction page he didn’t think Chelsea would finish in a Champions League position unless a centre-back and left-back were acquired before the transfer window closed.
He got his wish. Marcos Alonso, a Spaniard with Premier League experience at Bolton and Sunderland, joined from Fiorentina, and then, thrillingly, cult hero David Luiz returned to west London after two years in Paris. Nevin had long been a huge fan of his.
Their arrivals followed on from a trio of acquisitions earlier in the summer: back-up keeper Eduardo, young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi and, most crucially of all, N’Golo Kante from Leicester. The dynamic midfielder had been a revelation in his first year in England, the heartbeat of the team that so unexpectedly won the league. It was quite a coup.
‘When I was in Italy I liked to say the manager is like a tailor. You must build the best dress for the team. You have to respect the characteristics of the players and the talents of the players and then you decide.’
The next question was how Conte would set his team up. Three at the back had been his preference at Juve and then with the national team, but there was no sign of such a formation during pre-season when 4-2-3-1, 4-2-4 and 4-1-4-1 shapes were all sampled. It was with the last of those that the Blues lined up for the first game of the season, a Monday night home fixture with West Ham.
It materialised into as hard-fought a London derby as you might expect, settled very late on by a low Diego Costa drive that sparked delirious scenes on and off the pitch. Nobody at the Bridge celebrated as joyously as Conte. It was one of many signs of things to come.
Another was an excellent performance from Eden Hazard who opened the scoring. And though the Hammers levelled and it looked for a while like we would begin the season with the kind of frustrating home draw that hampered 2015/16, Diego Costa came up trumps.
Five days later he repeated the trick at Watford after Batshuayi had opened his Chelsea account. A steely determination and some clinical finishing meant it was six points and not two from the opening fortnight.
Burnley were soundly beaten to cap a perfect August, before points were dropped for the first time at Swansea at the start of September’s action. It would prove the season’s defining month.
A Friday night loss at home to Liverpool followed and then came a first-half capitulation at Arsenal the following week. That result, and in particular his team’s performance, left Conte angry.
‘We must work a lot to improve and change the situation because now we are only a great team on paper, not on the pitch,’ he said afterwards at the Emirates.
Nine goals conceded in four games was perhaps his principle concern, and 10 minutes into the second half in north London he introduced Alonso and switched to a 3-4-3 formation with the Spaniard deployed as a left wing-back.
The Blues never looked back.
‘In the past I started my season with other teams with one idea of football, and then I changed it because I saw the system for these players wasn’t good.’
Chelsea kicked off at Hull on the first day of October in eighth place, and the same number of points adrift of leaders Man City.
Three at the back was chosen from the start with David Luiz in the middle, Gary Cahill to his left and Cesar Azpilicueta to his right. Victor Moses had been a part of Conte’s plans from the start and having already made some positive contributions off the bench, the Nigerian was selected at right wing-back, with Alonso on the opposite flank.
That quintet would start the next 21 league games together over a six-month period, forming the backbone of a team that would, before long, be sitting pretty at the top of the table.
On Humberside a clean sheet was kept, and at the other end, Willian and Diego Costa struck delicious second-half netbusters. The goals kept on coming: three in the next game against Leicester, four against Man United, two at Southampton and then, most spectacularly, five against Everton on Bonfire Night. It was as sizzling a Chelsea display as any in recent years.
Perhaps most satisfyingly for Conte, we didn’t concede in those games, either. In fact, we allowed just six shots on our goal in as many hours of football. The new-look back three was well and truly working, and not only to the benefit of our defending.
Hazard looked comfortable cutting in and occasionally playing more centrally, with Pedro bringing a goal threat to the attack on the other side. The increasingly influential Kante scored a memorable solo goal against Man U and Moses and Alonso also chipped in, against Leicester and Everton respectively.
Following the November international break, we ground out a hard-fought victory at Middlesbrough. For the first time, a round of Premier League fixtures finished with Chelsea at the summit. Only eight weeks had passed since the Arsenal humbling.
‘In this period to talk about the title is not right. We have to improve a lot; we have a long way in front of us. It’s important to stay humble and continue to work, and trust in our work.’
Big tests awaited. Tottenham came to the Bridge unbeaten and subsequently opened the scoring, Thibaut Courtois beaten for the first time in 10 hours. But the Blues roared back with character, quality and goals either side of the break from Pedro and Moses. The unbeaten home record against Tottenham extended into its 28th year; the winning league sequence now stood at seven games.
An eighth looked in doubt when Man City took the lead a week later, but at this point it seemed nothing would throw Conte’s men off course. Diego Costa, Willian and Hazard delivered devastating counter-attacking goals and the Blues left the North-West four points clear of Guardiola and co.
A trio of awkward-looking fixtures preceded Christmas but we showed we had substance as well as style, edging West Brom, Sunderland and Crystal Palace out by a goal to nil. Diego Costa at his very best had supplied the knockout blows in the two lunchtime weekend kick-offs, and the long midweek trip to the Stadium of Light between them was settled by a fine Cesc Fabregas strike and an even better last-second save from Courtois. It was the stuff of champions.
The year finished with entertaining home wins over Bournemouth (3-0) and Stoke (4-2). We had now equalled Arsenal’s record for consecutive Premier League victories in a single season, 13, having not dropped a point in October, November or December.
‘During my experience as a footballer I won a title with eight points more, and another time I lost in the same way.
‘For this reason, I think I have a bit of experience to manage this situation and try to keep our antennas very high.’
Tottenham put a halt to that club-record run but we bounced back with comfortable victories over Leicester and Hull, and at the start of our FA Cup campaign, too.
Four points from Liverpool away and Arsenal at home was a good return, those big games lit up by spectacular goals from David Luiz, his first since returning, and Hazard.
The league action then somewhat dried up with only four fixtures to contest in the seven weeks following the derby win over the Gunners. An extremely tough game at Burnley finished all-square but again the response was good as we recorded three straight wins, against Swansea, West Ham and Stoke. The latter in particular was special for Cahill’s late winner. The England defender had been captain in John Terry’s absence and spent much of the campaign popping up with crucial goals, none more important than his thumped finish in the Potteries with time running out. It meant we headed into the March international break 10 points clear, with 10 games to play.
‘You win and you lose as a team. We are a team in every situation. Chelsea was an underdog at the start of the season, but now we stay at the top and we want to keep this position.’
Considering we had only lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, the defeat at home to Palace once the action resumed came as quite as shock, but it was no April fool. For once our shooting boots had deserted us, but four days later Hazard provided the magic touches as we battled our way to victory over Man City at the Bridge. A serious obstacle had been hurdled.
By now, it was apparent our great rivals Tottenham would be providing the sternest test to our title credentials. Arsenal were long out of the running, Liverpool and City too inconsistent and Man U beset by home draws.
So Spurs’ late comeback at Swansea on the night we beat City kept the pressure on, and they followed that up with a demolition of Watford before we faced Bournemouth. The gap was only temporarily cut to four points that weekend as we picked the Cherries off on the South Coast.
We had no such luck at Old Trafford on Easter Sunday. Injury and illness affected the team selection and those who did play were off colour. Conte later admitted this was the lowest point in the title race. The gap was now four points.
‘We are doing a great job, a miracle if you consider last season and the problems we had. For this reason, we must have great enthusiasm to play these last six games, with passion and a will to fight and win. If we are able to win we must be proud. Otherwise we must clap another team.’
In the first of our remaining six games we swatted Southampton aside. Tottenham then just about beat Palace the following night. We made light work of Everton at Goodison Park on the Sunday, set on our way by a cracking Pedro strike. Spurs responded hours later by beating Arsenal. Our lead stayed at four points, but now there were just four games to go.
The ball was in Tottenham’s court as they headed a few miles south-east to play West Ham. Win there and only a solitary point would separate the top two ahead of our home fixture with Middlesbrough on the Monday.
The Hammers had other ideas, however, dishing out a derby defeat that seriously damaged the title hopes of Mauricio Pochettino and his players. We looked like a team who knew they were close to something very special when Boro turned up at the Bridge, dominating and dismantling them with a display of quick, incisive football. It was the kind of performance that had lit up so much of our season.
The target was down to three points. A win at West Brom would do it. Enter substitute Michy Batshuayi to pierce the Albion Wall, as he had done in the first away game at Watford. Our defence held firm. You wait three months for this London team's clean sheet and then three come along together. As it was two years earlier, a 1-0 win was sufficient to claim no.1 spot.
It has been a mighty collective effort, inspired by the brilliant management of Conte. So good were performances across the team it is hard to single out one individual above others, but Kante winning the PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year awards pointed to the stunning impact he has made.
Diego Costa with 20 league goals to date and Thibaut Courtois 16 clean sheets contributed match-winning moments at either end of the pitch. The three central defenders in front of the Belgian keeper have been sturdy and consistent, none more so than Cesar Azpilicueta who is yet to miss a minute of league action this term.
The rise to prominence of Moses and Alonso has been an unexpected delight, and whether it was Matic or Fabregas lining up alongside Kante, the middle of the park has created and destroyed in equal measure. Hazard, back to his mercurial best, was only beaten to the individual awards by Kante. On the other side Pedro and Willian’s speed, skill and eye for goal have often proved the difference in tight games.
There have been important minutes for youngsters such as Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as well as the wise old head Terry, in his last season at the club. Branislav Ivanovic and Oscar, two players we bid a January farewell to, also played their part in the first half of the season.
So, Chelsea are the champions again. Conte’s wish for us to surprise people came true. The flickering flame he inherited grew into the blazing inferno he dreamed of, as he watched his Blues engulf all before them.