They were so close.
The Chelsea express blitzed their way through the Christmas period, blowing apart any side that tried to resist. They masterfully ended Manchester City’s 11-match winning start to the season at the Etihad and seemed destined to clinch the Premier League crown on the Special One’s return.
But Jose Mourinho refused to announce – at least publically – that his side had a shot of the title. While Manuel Pellegrini continued to amplify City’s chances, his Portuguese counterpart was not interested, describing his in-form side as little horses in the title race.
That remark alone was innocuous enough, but it was the start of a damaging spiral of comments that hurt Chelsea’s attempt to wrestle the title out of Manchester.
An enduring pessimism gripped Stamford Bridge despite each Blues victory carrying them closer to the title. Mourinho refused to believe, at one stage claiming that City were clear favourites when nine points behind with three games in hand – only victory in all three would have seen City usurp Chelsea at the top.
Even after the 6-0 demolition of Arsenal he rebuffed claims that his side were clear favourites with the retort: “obviously not.” Hardly what you want to hear as a Chelsea player after such an emphatic victory.
His insistence that Chelsea were not ready to win the league was partly justified – Chelsea were not as equipped as City and Liverpool only had domestic issues to contend with – but they were firmly in the title race. As it transpired, their two rivals were not complete packages either, with City only lifting the title because the other two slipped up when it mattered.
The tipping point was Mourinho’s sarcastic four-point tirade after his 77-game unbeaten home run was halted by Sunderland.
“Congratulations to my players because they gave what they have and what they don't have.
"Congratulations to Sunderland, because they won.
"Congratulations to Mike Dean because he made a fantastic performance and congratulations to Mike Riley, because what they did during the season was fantastic for the way the championship is going."
From that point on, Chelsea's off-field antics took precedent. Each week a new FA charge overshadowed any momentum they might have built, even after the 2-0 win at Anfield.
And yet, they should have won it - or at least been in the mix on the final day. Throughout the 2013/14 campaign, Chelsea could seemingly pick a result and go and get it against the big teams. They beat Liverpool and City home and away; the only club they suffered defeat to in the top eight was Everton.
But it was in the games against the lesser sides – those that would sit with men behind the ball – where Chelsea struggled. The trio of Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba worked tirelessly in attack and their reward? Mourinho lambasting them continuously.
Eto'o's old man celebration was the perfect retort to a leaked conversation about his alleged age, but it was plain to see: Mourinho’s comments had struck a nerve. Their confidence had been whittled.
And it was partly highlighted in the season-ending 2-1 win over Cardiff. Torres popped up in numerous promising positions but refused to shoot unless it was his only option. And when he eventually converted a chance, there was no celebration – no expression of delight that he was happy to be in blue.
Eden Hazard, fresh from receiving a personal public outburst for not putting in a defensive shift in Europe, also had countless opportunities to rip Cardiff apart, but he too seemed more content finding a team-mate and drifted through the game in a daze.
Mourinho does not need to encourage Hazard to backtrack and defend – his side conceded just 27 goals all season. Likewise with Oscar, who started the campaign in scintillating form but became less expressive as it went on. There is no need for either to be cast aside like Juan Mata. Chelsea are simply too strong defensively to alter their creative players' mind-set.
A fearsome attack at Stamford Bridge beckons as Roman Abramovich prepares to splash out on a new frontman. But Abramovich has been cut a disillusioned figure in recent weeks – often absent from Chelsea's games and said to be unhappy with their style of football.
And when Abramovich stops attending matches, the managerial axe shortly follows. Time, then, for Mourinho to cut the leash on his attacking players and rebuild a positive spirit around Stamford Bridge, before it's too late.
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