May 22, 2015

The Special One? Gone.

Stamford Bridge? No longer the impenetrable fortress.

The title defence? In tatters.

European hopes? Fleeting at best.

Star-quality players? Dimming at every position.

For Chelsea, the struggle has gone from staying on top to avoiding the drop.

Life without Jose Mourinho begins once more for the Blues, who have been thrust into the throes of relegation battles heading into Saturday's match at home versus Sunderland.

The building groundswell regarding Mourinho's job status had reached critical mass before Chelsea released a statement Thursday saying it had mutually parted ways with Mourinho just seven months after he won a third Premier League title and in the first year of a new four-year contract.

This 2 1/2-year run for Mourinho and owner Roman Abramovich ended far more amicably than their falling out that marked the end of the Portuguese manager's first stint in 2007. The team went through great pains to convey that message given the "club wishes to make clear Jose leaves us on good terms and will always remain a much-loved, respected and significant figure at Chelsea," but the "palpable discord" surrounding Mourinho's exit has left Chelsea one point clear of the relegation zone and enduring the worst title defence of the Premier League era.

It's the first time since 2000-01 the Blues (4-3-9) were lower than fifth after 16 matches. Only one other time - occupying the 18th spot in 1993-94 - were they in worse shape than their current 16th place this late in a Premier League season.

Well-traveled Guus Hiddink is likely to be the caretaker manager, reprising his 2009 role when he followed Luiz Felipe Scolari and helped Chelsea win the FA Cup and reach the semifinals of the Champions League. Should the Dutchman be hired, Hiddink will get another crack at the Champions League in February when the Blues begin knockout play against Paris-St. Germain in the round of 16.

In the longer-term picture, Mourinho's exit adds another layer of intrigue to what could be an epic upheaval along Premier League touchlines among England's elite clubs come next spring as Abramovich will make his 10th and potentially 11th managerial appointments at Chelsea since taking ownership in 2003.

Louis van Gaal is under fire at Manchester United after their shock exit from Champions League, Bayern Munich's Pep Guardiola is already rumoured to be leaving for the Premier League at the end of his contract in the summer, and Mourinho's name will now be bandied about with one-time Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti, Italian national manager Antonio Conte, ex-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and Atletico Madrid's Diego Simeone for any high-profile opening going forward.

There is plenty of blame to be shared for Chelsea's free fall. Mourinho's brash demeanor went from galvanising to irritating in the locker room as the losses mounted and the goals dried up. That came to the forefront as his relationship with prickly striker Diego Costa deteriorated and the manager excoriated his players following Monday's 2-1 loss to front-running Leicester City, saying he felt "betrayed" by their efforts.

The players also are at fault. Last season, Costa was a ruthless goal-scoring nuisance who gave relentless effort and shared the same wavelength with playmaker Cesc Fabregas. This season, Costa has been only petulant - he has just three goals in league play - and Fabregas has totaled two assists.

The backline and spine, a pillar of strength last season when Chelsea conceded 32 league goals, has been ravaged by injuries, age and player decline. First-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has lost both his matches since returning from a knee injury, and beloved captain and centre back John Terry has looked every bit his 35 years, with mere flashes of strong play and few 90-minute showings.

Branislav Ivanovic's form has taken a dramatic downturn, while only midfielder Willian has carried over his quality into this season - his staggering proficiency taking free kicks in both Champions League and domestic play saving Chelsea further blushes.

"This is essentially the same group of players who won the league and the League Cup last season. They did in style and they did it by showing commitment and by sweating tears and blood for the club when needed," technical director Michael Emenalo said in a Chelsea website interview.

"The players have a responsibility to go out and prove everybody wrong and show a certain level of commitment ... to try to get the club up the league table."

The lack of quality has also been evident at Stamford Bridge, where an opponent securing three points while Mourinho stalked the touchline was once a near-impossibility. Chelsea have 10 points and four losses from their eight home matches after Mourinho entered this season 76-21-1 lifetime in league play.

Amid this turbulent scene in south London enters Sunderland (3-3-10), already engaged in avoiding the drop once more but with an opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea in the table with a victory. Ahead of only Aston Villa, the Black Cats have dropped back-to-back contests and come off a 1-0 home loss to Watford in which they had only two shots on target.

The schedule makers did not provide Sunderland any holiday cheer, as a Boxing Day trip to Manchester City and a home match versus Liverpool follow this contest, but manager Sam Allardyce is focused only on adding to Chelsea's woes.

"Our job on Saturday is to try and continue that cloud Chelsea are under," he said according to Sunderland's Twitter account. "We have to play our best on Saturday irrespective of the form Chelsea have been in."

Allardyce will definitely be without midfielders Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson, though Younes Kaboul is expected to return. Sebastian Coates, however, will be a match-time decision.

Sunderland's 2-1 shock result April 19, 2014, was Mourinho's only home loss in league play prior to this season. Chelsea took four points off the Black Cats in 2014-15, winning 3-1 in the corresponding fixture.

Both of Sunderland's victories in the last 22 league meetings (2-2-18) between the teams dating to the 2001-02 season have come in south London.

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