Chelsea clinched the Premier League title on Sunday in a manner that may seem to sum up their season: with six defenders on the field, systematically wasting time as it protected a 1-0 lead that came from a scruffy first-half goal.
Eden Hazard scored that goal with a header off the rebound of his own, horrible penalty kick. “Lucky, lucky,” Hazard told Sky TV.
Yet really there was nothing lucky about Chelsea’s victory over Crystal Palace, or its fourth title in a decade.
Against a plucky Palace team, Chelsea defended well and attacked with slick menace. José Mourinho took off three attacking players as he brought on Jon Obi Mikel, Kurt Zouma and Filipe Luis in the second half. Chelsea parked in defense and eyed the clock. But over the game Chelsea had 62 percent of possession and twice as many shots with seven on target to just one by the Palace. Despite the caution, this was domination.
“A little bit nervous but we got over the line and we are champions,” Chelsea captain John Terry told Sky immediately after the final whistle.
Chelsea dominated all season. It took over first place on the final weekend of August in the third round of games. It has been there ever since. With three games left it leads by 16 points. It has the best defense in the division and, it should be noted, the second-best attack.
The debate over whether Mourinho is the greatest manager in Premier League history is meaningless and impossible to resolve. Like Alex Ferguson, Mourinho knows one important truth: it is easier to win when you have the best players.
Thibaut Courtois, John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Eden Hazard are all the best in their positions in England. Diego Costa may be the best center forward, when he is fit. Yet if Costa is going to continue to miss a third of Premier League games, he might find the manager reaching again for the owner’s pocket. Like Ferguson, Mourinho is relentless in demanding the best from the best.
Costa’s injury exposed Chelsea’s lack of depth in attack. Elsewhere, Mourinho has generally had the luxury of having his players fit. Chelsea has used just 22 players in the league. Chelsea’s consistency has exposed the cracks in its rivals. Manchester City remains flaky. Manchester United is still rebuilding its squad. Liverpool is still disassembling its team. Arsenal is, as it has been for a decade, a season away.
“This one is sweet,” said Didier Drogba after winning his third league title at Stamford Bridge. “Chelsea is bigger than me and they will always win.”
Yet as City, United and indeed Chelsea have discovered in recent years, domination can evaporate over a short summer. Even the richest teams do not always win.
“We know in future it's very difficult and other teams will come even stronger,” Mourinho told Sky TV after the game. “England's not the best country to be a force and dominate football."
Mourinho told the BBC after the game that he was “tired” and needs a “rest” but now he has won on the playing field, he will soon resume the battle to beat the other clubs in the transfer window. Apart from in the center of attack, Chelsea has no pressing needs. Yet Chelsea’s success next season will depend on his ability this summer to anticipate where the cracks might appear.
On Sunday there appeared to be none. Chelsea has not always been the prettiest team, but it is clearly the best. It is a worthy champion.
Eliminating the guesswork – Every anxious penalty taker hopes to send the goalie the wrong way. Eden Hazard’s preferred technique is to hesitate in his run up, wait for the goalie to move and then pat the ball the other way.
He tried it once too often Sunday. Julian Speroni waited, watched and then pounced. If only the Palace goalie could have caught the weak shot, instead of blocking it back to Hazard, Palace would have been level at half time.
Hazard was not the only great player to take a mediocre penalty over the weekend. Steven Gerrard and Robin van Persie both played safe and ensured they hit the target with penalties a couple of yards inside the post. That meant when the goalies, Boaz Myhill of West Brom, and Robert Green of QPR guessed right, they saved easily. Yet the goalies also guessed right against Jordi Gómez, Romelu Lukaku and Leonardo Ulloa. But Gómez and Lukaku placed their penalties just inside the post; Ulloa walloped his just under the bar. They left themselves little margin of error. They also put the ball out of the reach of the goalies.
It’s nice when the goalie goes the wrong way, as Kelvin Davis did for the second Gomez penalty and Tom Heaton of Burnley did against Mark Noble of West Ham. But accuracy trumps guesswork.
The walking dead – For QPR and Burnley, the fight is almost over. If either loses any of its three remaining games, it is gone. Since both keep finding ever more inventive ways to lose, the chances are that will happen pretty soon. Burnley cannot score. It lost, 1-0, at West Ham, after a bizarre red card. QPR, having fought back at Anfield, then threw points away, yet again, allowing Steven Gerrard to make it 2-1 in the dying minutes.
The Hoops and the Clarets are the walking dead but it is far from clear who will be the third team to join them in the Premier League graveyard. Five clubs, separated by just two points, are playing a frantic game of musical coffins. Villa, who beat Everton; Leicester, who thrashed Newcastle, and Hull, who play on Monday, keep winning, yet cannot seem to escape the clutching hand below.
Yet the two clubs that look truly haunted are the pair from the North East. Sunderland beat Southampton but stayed in the bottom three. It has a game in hand over all its rivals except Hull, but Sunderland has to play Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal away. Its one home game is against rampant Leicester. That’s good news for the zombies of Newcastle. The Magpies have a two-point edge on Sunderland but have a worse goal difference and have lost eight straight. The Newcastle fans seem finally to have convinced the players that they are rubbish and that owner Mike Ashley doesn’t deserve their effort. Newcastle’s best hope might be that Sunderland does not win again.
Math with John Carver – Like Nigel Tufnel, the Spinal Tap guitarist who used a volume knob that went to 11 in the belief that it would make his amp louder, people involved in soccer have always had a shaky grasp of math, particularly percentages. Back in January, after a loss to Chelsea, John Carver, Newcastle’s interim manager, turned the statistical knob way past 11 when he declared he wanted the full-time job “1 million per cent.”
Three months later, Carver is still facing the BBC cameras “like a broken record” as he said after Newcastle lost, 3-0, at Leicester on Saturday. Yet he is finding inventive ways to stretch the boundaries of arithmetic.
Asked how he rated Newcastle’s display on a scale of one to 10, Carver answered: “Minus 10.”
Carver laid into his players for lacking guts.
“When the ball comes into the box, we’re not prepared to put our heads in.” He did not name the culprits, but he clearly meant Moussa Sissoko and Emmanuel Rivière who ducked away from incoming corners while Leicester players did not. Sissoko gave away a goal, Rivière a penalty.
Carver also accused defender Mike Williamson, who picked up two soft yellow cards, of deliberately getting himself sent off as “an easy way out.” That’s hardly likely to inspire a player. It doesn’t matter. Williamson will miss two of Newcastle’s three remaining games. Carver, that speech suggests, knows he won’t be back next year.
To avoid relying on Sunderland’s poor form, Newcastle desperately needs to find a win, just one win, in its three games. The math looks easy. The problem is daunting.
“We need to find a solution,” Carver said. He’s the mathematician.
Concrete foundations – Aston Villa seems to have the answer. It looked an unstoppable attacking force as it beat Everton, 3-2. Christian Benteke scored twice, to take his tally to 10 in nine games. Tom Cleverley hit his second in two games. Yet carefree attack is usually built on a solid defense. Villa’s foundation rests once again on the unyielding block that is “Concrete” Ron Vlaar. Since he returned on April 7, Villa has won three drawn one and lost one. Vlaar conceded a penalty on Saturday, but once again he brought organization, calm and courage to defense, as well as a threat from set pieces in attack. Vlaar might be slow, but he allows the attack to run wild.
Playing the precentages – Last week, as West Brom eked out a goalless draw at home to Liverpool with barely 25 percent of possession, manager Tony Pulis proved a point. On Saturday, at Old Trafford, West Brom had even less possession, under 19 percent, and won, 1-0. The home team wasted a few chances. Myhill made some good saves. But the anti-football joke was on United. Pulis refused to crack a grin as he told the BBC “We set ourselves up to be difficult to beat.” He had made three points.