On the day Chelsea would have been hosting Watford, we recall a celebratory evening at the Bridge when the champions were welcomed home...
The visit of Watford on Monday 15 May 2017 was met with great pomp and pageantry. Not to welcome Walter Mazzarri’s Hornets, safe in 15th place, but to celebrate the fact Antonio Conte had steered Chelsea to a sixth title success, thanks to Michy Batshuayi’s winner at the Hawthorns the previous Friday.
The champions were rightly lauded before kick-off, with the visiting players forming a guard of honour at the freshly-redecorated Stamford Bridge, but the visitors proceeded to belie their status and almost spoil the party.
Conte made nine changes to his starting line-up at West Bromwich Albion – the most ever in the Premier League – and Asmir Begovic, Ola Aina, Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah wore the royal blue for the last time, the latter destined to rejoin Watford, his loan club in 2012/13.
This was a match that almost made real the cliche that every time either side attacked they looked like scoring. The see-sawing gave comfort to neither coach. Chelsea led 1-0, and 3-1, but the Hornets stung three times to level the scores at 3-3 with a quarter hour remaining.
To add to the sense of reality-suspension, John Terry opened the scoring in the penultimate of his 717 appearances for the Londoners, then uncharacteristically allowed Etienne Capoue to equalise.
There was always something inexorable about the newly-crowned champions’ victory, though. After Cesar Azpilicueta and Batshuayi scored either side of the break, party time broke out raucously in the stands, despite Daryl Janmaat snatching another for the Hertfordshire side. Even after Stefan Okaka continued the tit-for-tat scoring to make it 3-3 15 minutes from time, the old songs and the new were endlessly aired, with ‘Antonioo… ’ the fall-back.
Then, in the 88th minute, the popular Cesc Fabregas looked finally to have delivered the coup de grace from the edge of the box with Chelsea’s 100th goal of the season. The Catalan struck, and Herts sank. But like Terminator’s red light finally going out, we only really knew the Hornets were truly finished when centre-back Sebastian Prodl was sent off just before the final whistle for his second offence in eight minutes.
The win equalled the Blues’ own record of 29 wins in a single Premier League season, set in 2004/05 and equalled the following season. When the lengthy acclaim that followed the final whistle finally ended, the festivities continued long into the night around west London. Champions again. Wow.