With two days to go until the Watch Party of our title-sealing win over Bolton 15 years ago, we continue our feature retelling the story of the 2004/05 campaign here...
‘Swiss banks, tele-operators’ customer services, Chelsea’s goal – these are the most protected things in the world, nobody can get through.’Aki Riihilahti
With 10 Premier League fixtures remaining in the 2004/05 season, it’s easy to see why Blues supporters may have been getting carried away. Cruising clear at the top of the table, one trophy already in the bag and, to top it all off, the euphoria of eliminating Barcelona from the Champions League in a game which fans would later select as the greatest in the club’s history. Rarely had Chelsea had it this good – but, then again, has anyone ever seen the Premier League trophy handed out in March?
‘This is a time to remember we have not won the league,’ wrote Jose Mourinho in his column for the matchday programme ahead of the visit of West Bromwich Albion. ‘Chelsea haven’t won it for 50 years and this Chelsea side hasn’t won it yet in 2005.’
There was, however, cause for celebration of an entirely different nature. Forty-eight hours before the game, the Blues held a party at the Butcher’s Hook to mark the 100th anniversary of the first official meeting of Chelsea Football Club, which had take place under the pub’s previous guise, The Rising Sun.
Mourinho was in attendance, along with owner Roman Abramovich and the board, joined by Blues favourites from yesteryear and celebrity supporters, as William Brown, the oldest former player tracked down by the club, blew out the candles on the birthday cake to celebrate 100 years of west London’s finest.
There was no such hospitality shown to the Baggies, though, as Didier Drogba’s first-half strike, his ninth Premier League goal of the season, knocked the spring out of their step and set us on course for a record-setting victory. Not only had we beaten our all-time record for league clean sheets in a season, with this the 22nd of Cech’s maiden campaign in the Premier League, but we also set a new mark for consecutive home league games undefeated in the top flight – 20 matches had passed since Arsenal’s victory at the Bridge the previous February.
Another game could be added to the list just four days later when Crystal Palace were the visitors to west London for a local derby armed with the top-scoring English striker in the division, Andy Johnson.
To give football supporters some idea of what it was like to come up against the stingiest rearguard in English top-flight history, Palace midfielder Aki Riihilahti set the scene for readers in his weekly column in The Times.
‘Swiss banks, tele-operators’ customer services, Chelsea’s goal – these are the most protected things in the world, nobody can get through,’ wrote Riihilahti. ‘It is almost easier to get gold by robbing Fort Knox than stealing the silverware by scoring past Petr Cech.
‘I get a ball in midfield like millions of times before. This time, though, there are immediately two players pressuring me, so I have to pass it quickly. The only options throughout the game I get is to play the ball wide; the centre is crowded like Oxford Street before Christmas. The whole game I see an opposition defending narrow, aggressive, organised and with numbers.
‘Sounds like a lot has to go right today to even get a chance to try to finish against one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Welcome to Stamford Bridge.’
Riihilahti may have had an ulterior motive for his gushing appraisal of our intimidating defence – the Finnish midfielder had just become the first man since 20 November to beat Petr Cech in a Premier League game at the Bridge, not long after the Blues had gone ahead through a trademark strike from Frank Lampard.
It was all in vain, though, as Palace were eventually thumped 4-1 thanks largely to a late brace from Mateja Kezman, the first of which came just a minute after his arrival as a substitute and featured the comical sight of the ball squirming through the grasp of Palace keeper Gabor Kiraly.
‘I'm just so excited,’ beamed our other goalscorer, Joe Cole. ‘I can't stop looking at the fixture list and thinking if we win this game, this game and this game, then... But it's important to check yourself and think about winning the next game.’
Thanks to the international break, that match didn’t come for another fortnight when we faced a tricky visit to St Mary’s to face Harry Redknapp’s Southampton and our third straight game against a side fighting for their Premier League status.
Once again, the Blues ground out a vital three points despite not being at our best, and part of the credit for that was due to the work of fitness coach Rui Faria, which was paying dividends at this late stage of the campaign.
‘A great pianist doesn’t run around the piano or do push-ups on his fingers – to be good, he plays the piano,’ said Faria. ‘Football is the same. Playing football is the most important thing, you don’t have to do the other things.
‘All the exercises we do improved the fitness of the team, and we need the players to be committed and concentrated to give 100 percent all the time.’
A brilliant double by Eidur Gudjohnsen was the catalyst for a 3-1 victory, including a magnificent team goal late on to snuff out any hope of a Saints comeback despite Kevin Phillips giving his side hope in the second half.
‘Another effortlessly efficient victory confirms the mental strength of a team destined for a place in football history,’ wrote Mark Irwin in The Sun after Manchester United’s goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers saw our lead extended to 13.
Unlucky for some, perhaps, but not this Chelsea side. All it would take to be crowned champions was a further three victories.
Thursday's #CFCWatchParty starts at 8.30pm, with the full game broadcast on this website...