LONDON — The five-year drought is over. Chelsea is Premier League champion again — with three games to spare.
Chelsea secured the title with a scrappy 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday that encapsulated the recent cautious pragmatism of Jose Mourinho’s team.
But it was a trophy that was really won in the opening months of the season, with Chelsea having been atop the standings from day one. With only two losses in 35 games, Chelsea rarely was troubled in its pursuit of a fourth league title in 11 years — and the fifth in its 110-year history.
“This is unbelievable, we’ve worked so hard this year to get over the line,” captain John Terry said as the blue and white streamers descended on the Stamford Bridge field. “Today was a tough match, a little bit nervous, but we got over the line and we are champions.”
Fittingly, the title-winning goal came from Eden Hazard, a week after the Belgium winger’s dynamic, individual displays were honored by his fellow professionals with the player of the year award.
Although Hazard’s uncharacteristically weak penalty kick was saved by Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni at the end of the first half, the Belgian headed in the rebound for his 14th league goal of the season.
The victory was enough to establish an insurmountable lead and dethrone Manchester City, which now has failed in both its title defenses since 2012 despite heavy investment from its Abu Dhabi ownership. Chelsea is 16 points ahead of Arsenal, which has five games left to play.
“We showed absolutely everything since day one, everything football demands from a team,” Mourinho said. “We had fantastic attacking football, we had fantastic domination … we defended amazingly well.”
The team also won the League Cup in March, and Mourinho’s third Premier League title success confirms that the Portuguese coach is back at the pinnacle of management in England.
Chelsea had only won the topflight once in its first century — in 1955 — when Mourinho delivered the Premier League title a decade ago after the club’s fortunes were transformed following the 2003 takeover by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Mourinho defended the title in 2006 before losing a power struggle with Abramovich the following year and going off to win titles for Inter Milan and Real Madrid before being welcomed back to Stamford Bridge in 2013.
During Mourinho’s six year-absence, Chelsea won the league only once in 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti and the Portuguese manager returned to a Chelsea with the club’s finances now constrained by UEFA Financial Fair Play rules.
Chelsea has spent around $340 million on players in the last two years, but around $250 million was recouped by outgoing transfers. And perhaps the most significant addition was Diego Costa, who was brought in to bolster the strike force.
The $52-million striker’s 19 league goals between August and March propelled Chelsea to the summit. His recent absence with a recurrence of hamstring problems has coincided with the team losing some of its early-season swagger.
At the bedrock of the triumph has been Chelsea’s sturdy defense, which has conceded a league-low 27 goals.
The back four has been anchored commandingly by Terry, the 34-year-old center back who has enjoyed a late-career revival under Mourinho and stifled the Palace attacks in a nervy conclusion on Sunday.
Mourinho has been angered by accusations that Chelsea is boring, but pragmatic, defensive tactics saw off any threat from Arsenal and City while relying on 37-year-old striker Didier Drogba up front recently.
The Ivorian has been in all four of Chelsea’s Premier League title-winning sides after a spell abroad between the third and fourth triumphs.
“This one is sweet,” he said. “With or without me, Chelsea will always be number one.”
And that’s how the team will end the season.
Thumbnail photo via Alastair Grant/Associated Press