It’s easy to forget that Chelsea is the Premier League champion. Easy to forget that, 13 months ago, it was these Blues, and not the ones from Manchester, that had piled up more than a dozen consecutive wins. And on Monday night, it wasn’t just easy to forget; it was darn near impossible to remember.
Chelsea slipped to a second consecutive loss, 4-1 at Watford, five days after an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat to Bournemouth. It has responded to crisis chatter, amplified by comments from its own manager, in the worst possible way.
A few months ago, it seemed unfathomable that a title-winning boss would fail to make it through his second season for a second-straight year. Now it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Antonio Conte stays in London beyond May. And his facial expressions as Watford poured in a third and a fourth goal in the final minutes signaled a remarkable acceptance of that reality.
Monday was a night microcosmic of a tumultuous campaign. Because while it has been full of instability and drama since the season’s opening weekend, it hasn’t been a disaster. Far from it. The Blues remain in fourth place, on pace for Champions League qualification, and in this year’s last 16.
They’re too good to completely fall apart, just like they were too good to fall away after going down a man and down a goal in the first half at Vicarage Road. Tiemoue Bakayoko’s clumsy touch and second yellow in 30 minutes summed up his frustrating first season at Stamford, and dug the Blues a hole.
Troy Deeney later converted from the penalty spot to hand the visitors a deficit, and flipped two middle fingers to the Chelsea fans just for good measure.
N’Golo Kante’s superhuman energy and quickness, however, made the game feel more like 11-v-11 than 10-v-11. Eden Hazard pulled Chelsea level with less than 10 minutes remaining after Conte’s side had coped quite well with both of their disadvantages.
But as has happened throughout the past five-plus months, Chelsea apparently wasn’t fond of secure footing on level ground. A minute after retrieving the ball from the Watford net and racing back to the halfway line, intent on grabbing a winner, its defense and midfield graciously let Daryl Janmaat stroll in for a winner at the other end:
And then Chelsea did collapse, its humiliation reflected on Conte’s face. It had shown its quality. But its quality hadn’t been enough. It had been compromised by something more immaterial, something deeper.
The tumult seems to be wearing on both manager and players. A club can only be on the brink of crisis so long before it falls into the abyss. Whether that’s what Chelsea has done over the past week remains to be seen. Again, it still has Hazard and Kante, and enough depth at all 11 positions to pull itself up once again. And it isn’t the only top-four contender with problems. But it might just have arrived at a tipping point.
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