A rare poor team performance led to Jose Mourinho’s biggest defeat in the Premier League since 2006 – a 3-0 defeat at Middlesbrough. With now just one game to go, Chelsea have assured their status as this year’s champions and best side but were outsmarted by a resolute Tony Pulis-inspired West Brom. What would be most disconcerting to the pragmatic Portuguese is just how disinterested some of his big guns looked against the Baggies. While the oft-quoted phrase of the latter stages of the season being the deckchair and sandals games, with most players minds off on far-flung golden, sandy beaches, Chelsea were out-battled by their dogged hosts, which is unsurprising for a Mourinho-led side. In his post-match comments, Mourinho quipped that once the “salt and pepper” of the Premier League contest had gone, some of his players had lost their sparkle and expected to steam-roll their opponents as seen in earlier games prior to their coronation as champions. However, this lackadaisical showing just will not do – for the club, for a certain Portuguese and a certain Russian oligarch. It does though give hope to the other teams, that the Blues are human after all.
There can be no argument that the best side won at the Hawthorns. West Brom outgunned their more illustrious opponents from the first to the last minute. Since joining the club, Pulis’ transformation of the club has not been without its pitfalls – a late home loss to Leicester – but this showing just proves how impressive the Welshman is as a coach and man-motivator. His key attribute has been, however, to coax the lingering talent out of his elder players in the Baggies dressing room. His signing of Darren Fletcher has instilled a level of steeliness in the fulcrum of the West Brom midfield – a skill which can only be learnt after more than a decade of success at Old Trafford. Around Fletcher, players such as Chris Brunt and Joleon Lescott have made their own contributions but one player has stood out more so than any other – Gareth McAuley. Since joining in 2011, the 35-year-old has become integral alongside Jonas Olsson and it is clear just how much Pulis trusts the Larne-born central defender’s ability. Not just this, it takes a brave (or foolish) man to lock horns with Diego Costa. As Costa left the pitch midway through the second half, it was clear who won that battle as Pulis and McAuley toast their latest instalment of three valuable points.
Mourinho made the brave decision to name a youthful bench, seeing as Chelsea’s season is over having won the title already. But after the crazy decision to send Cesc Fabregas off for violent conduct – the most violent part of which was the actual kick which sent the ball back in the direction of Chris Brunt – ruined Mourinho’s best laid plans to integrate some of the hottest talent of Chelsea’s successful youth team into the first team. But Chelsea are by no means a finish article. The goalkeeper and defence look very solid, but of course with Petr Cech looking increasingly likely to depart Stamford Bridge in the summer, a new challenge for Thibaut Courtois will need to be found. Moving further forward, it appears that four of the Blues’ midfield spots are filled for next season and one, as has happened this season, will be rotated. Yet Juan Cuadrado is looking more and more like a £27m mistake, but it would be fairer to judge him on one full season. Caution should greet the Colombian though – just ask Kevin de Bruyne as the Belgian was deemed surplus to requirements after having never been allowed to show his skills, which have made him such a hit in Lower Saxony at the Volkswagen-funded football club in Wolfsburg. Finally, as per usual, the forward line. While Diego Costa was electric for two-thirds of the season, Didier Drogba is showing his age and Loic Remy has struggled with injury, similar to Costa. If Chelsea are to retain their title again, then another attacking option needs to be found. Will Patrick Bamford be given the chance, seeing as Mourinho is so keen to utilise his hot prospects? History says no but when has Mourinho paid attention to that.
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