The self-implosion consigned to history: Remembering 2013-14 — when Chelsea, not Liverpool, blew the title

(Image courtesy of PA)

The image is engrained in the memory of football fans. For a long time, those of a Liverpool persuasion struggled to shake off what was such a cruel twist of fate. Rival supporters remember it as a humorous moment which brought Brendan Rodgers’ team’s title push to a halt.

Yet, regardless of popular memory dictating that the 2013-14 season was one in which Liverpool and their captain let the trophy slip away from them, there was a glaring self-implosion of more inexplicable proportions occurring elsewhere.

This is the forgotten subplot of that pulsating run-in, not given the same coverage as the unforgettable campaign’s defining image but resulting in neither Gerrard and Liverpool nor Chelsea themselves coming out on top.

In a recent episode of The Robbie Fowler Podcast, “God” and his co-host Chris McHardy were joined by another Liverpool hero in Steven Gerrard, now achieving success as a manager with Rangers. In a wide-ranging interview, the three reflected on the 2013-14 season and the way it has been consigned to the history books since — something that has often crossed my mind in the years following that emotional end to the season.

As Fowler notes in the interview, the coverage of that split-second of misfortune was blown up into something of greater significance because of the context — not just how it happened, but who it happened to.

“If people want that to be the go-to moment, I’m alright with that,” Gerrard says.

As Gerrard himself acknowledges here — and has done countless other places since the fallout of that season — it was perhaps a natural way for the incident to be viewed. Gerrard was the driving figure of his boyhood club; the beating heart of a side desperate to end its long, painful wait for a first Premier League title.

In slipping to allow Demba Ba through on goal in first half stoppage time of league game number 35, he had apparently single-handedly thrown away the chances of his side — a team that lost just one of its final 19 league games — becoming champions. That narrative though, as Fowler stresses, has some undeniable flaws. It ignores the context of the run-in and the fact that Liverpool were outsiders for the majority of the season, only able to keep the pace because of their perfect form.

Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea was portrayed as the defining moment of the campaign. But even now, this is a man who seems to have laid to rest his demons from that day, while also having admitted to the fact that it will always cause a sense of regret; providing Gerrard with the ultimate ‘what if?’ from his distinguished career. The point, though, is that that game and that moment wouldn’t have unfolded in the way it did, had Mourinho’s team asserted their own dominance in the title race with the same steely focus they exhibited in gleefully spoiling Liverpool’s party.

Rewind to New Year’s Day, when 3-0 victory over Southampton saw Chelsea move to within two points of leaders Arsenal, a point behind Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City in second place and four points above Liverpool in fourth. At this stage Liverpool were outsiders but, like Chelsea, were gaining momentum.

Mourinho’s team would soon move into the ascendancy though. Following a vital 1-0 victory away at the Etihad stadium on Feb 3 — the archetypal Mourinho ‘masterclass’ — they beat Newcastle United 3-0 at home to go to the top of league the following weekend. With 13 games to go; despite City having a far superior goal difference, Chelsea were the team to beat. They led Liverpool in forth by six points, the Manchester side by two and an Arsenal side which would soon fall away by one.

As it turned out, Mourinho reconfigured his team and won the Premier League the following season. However, with hindsight, it may be possible to point to Chelsea’s capitulation in the second half of 2013-14 as the start of Mourinho’s slide from the top table of elite European managers.

By mid-February, Mourinho labelled Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger a “specialist in failure.” But the signs of a skid towards a climax in which both managers ended up failing in league terms weren’t yet apparent. Chelsea were steady and hadn’t lost in the league since Dec 7, when Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi scored a stunning late winner for Stoke City.

Wedged between impressive victorious performances, firstly over Tottenham and then against Galatasaray to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals, came the first of a series of displays in which Chelsea began to unravel.

The Blues headed to Villa Park on March 15 as league leaders. They had assumed top spot since gameweek 24 of the season, seemingly keeping their rivals at arm’s length. Then, with just nine league games to play and only the business end of the Champions League to cast eyes on elsewhere, Chelsea imploded.

Following Fabian Delph’s opener, which itself compounded the misery of earlier losing Willian to a second yellow card, Chelsea lost their temper in the closing stages. Ramires, followed by Mourinho himself, was also banished. When asked about what exactly had led to him being sent to the stands in the closing stages by fourth official Jon Moss, Mourinho birthed one of the Premier League greatest memes with one of the all-time iconic post-game interviews. At the time, though, it should have proved a sign of thing to come in the not-too-distant future.

This was the first moment when Mourinho’s side lost its grip on the trophy. Collectively, a string of results began which subsequently either seem to have been forgotten or ignored for the more appealing narrative of Gerrard’s misfortune and everything associated with it. In their next league game Mourinho’s side battered a faltering Arsenal, but a malaise of inconsistency set in soon enough.

On March 29, as their rivals continued to win and apply pressure, Chelsea lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace, courtesy of a John Terry own goal. Back-to-back wins kept Chelsea in the picture before inconsistency reigned once more when Gus Poyet’s Sunderland — stoically battling the danger of relegation — arrived at Stamford Bridge.

The ball glances off John Terry’s head, past goalkeeper Petr Čech, to give Crystal Palace a 1-0 victory over Chelsea. This was the second of three crucial games Mourinho’s team lost in their final nine. (Image courtesy of Action Images/John Sibley).

During an explicable turnaround, Chelsea went from 1-0 up to finding themselves trailing in the final minutes of the game. Cesar Azpilicueta brought down Jozy Altidore and Fabio Borini (another Liverpool loanee who haunted Chelsea that season) converted the penalty, ending Chelsea’s 78-game unbeaten home run in the process.

The defeat at home to Sunderland preceded the Anfield win, which itself was followed by a disappointing draw with Norwich at Stamford Bridge in the following game. In fact, Chelsea lost three out of their last nine, a reality which seems to have been overshadowed by the fact that Gerrard slipped, yes, but Chelsea celebrated a win at Anfield which did little for themselves and more to spoil the party of their hosts.

With their reflections on that season bringing the podcast to a natural conclusion, as you may expect Fowler is keen to defend his friend and former teammate. But Fowler has a point. In slightly tongue and cheek fashion, he alludes to the song which sections of fans sang at Gerrard regarding the event for the remainder of his career: “I want people to sing about Azpilicueta slipping the week before, because Chelsea lost the league!”

If they hadn’t dropped points at vital times in the lead-up to the Anfield clash, then Mourinho could feasibly have been hollering towards the away end victoriously celebrating a huge win on his way to clinching another title. Instead, he had Liverpool’s near-miss to shout about, overlooking the fact that his team had collapsed while in pole position that season. Ultimately, Chelsea’s shortcomings in the final weeks and months of the season would be all but forgotten because of one monumental slip.

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