Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho shakes hands with match-winner Demb Ba at Swansea's Liberty Stadium.
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There was a moment, riveted by the exhibition of impassioned salsa as Liverpool and Manchester City danced toe-to-toe in search of the Premier League summit, that the shadow of a burly intruder, hovering to stick out a leg and trip them up, was felt. Chelsea. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The spoilsports remain in the perfect position to ambush the romantics.
It’s exaggerating, of course, to call any side which includes the expert dribbling of Eden Hazard and the silky touch of Oscar spoilsports, but a glance at the goals scored column of the Premier League table shows how Chelsea, the team with no "real strikers" as Mourinho so pointedly put it, are always going to look like pragmatists next to their fellow contenders. Adding the five goals that made the breathtaking, emotional see-saw match at Anfield so compelling, and Demba Ba’s matchwinner at Swansea, the goal charts now look like this: Liverpool’s muskateers have scored 93, Manchester City’s gunslingers 86, Chelsea are a distance behind on 66.
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It was almost playing up on the stereotype to see Chelsea pining for that touch of finesse in front of goal as they dominated at Swansea before finally getting their reward from Ba, the least favoured of Mourinho’s three attackers, to eke out maximum points. Liverpool and City had just made hearts soar with a game which was so captivating in its attacking vibrancy. First the breakneck speed attacks of Liverpool. Then the high-pressing precise passing of City. Finally a moment of brilliant opportunism from Philippe Coutinho.
Having sprung to dramatically break Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Ba came up with another intervention which amply demonstrated how the Mourinho effect is so compelling. Whether you like it or not, the capacity of forcing the issue whatever the circumstances is remarkable.
Chelsea will not win the popular vote, and yet, they are still handily placed to sneak in front of everybody. "Four more games" has emerged as some kind of mantra for those of a Red persuasion. But for the Blues, four more Premier League wins will put them ahead of Brendan Rodgers’s team. Then it would be down to Manchester City, to see how they fare in their remaining matches. One slip, and Chelsea can be champions. Imagine, John Terry center stage for the trophy celebrations, Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Ba skipping hand in hand in the goalmouth, football fantasists the world over sobbing uncontrollably… prepare yourself, this could happen.
"The big one is Norwich," said Steven Gerrard as he huddled with his team-mates, in a sentence that will, if he is proved right, become symbolic at Anfield. But John Terry will be singing a different tune. The big one, for Chelsea, is Liverpool.
That is some week hurtling into view for Chelsea at the end of the month. Their own trip to Anfield, which now looms as the last of the pivotal meetings between the three Premier League contenders, is the filling in one gigantic sandwich. The two Champions League semi-finals against Atletico Madrid await on either side.
As much as it looks like the force is with Liverpool, and ten Premier League wins on the trot is an exceptional testament to their positive momentum, Chelsea will not go away. It still seems head-scratchingly odd that they should have lost to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in recent weeks, dropping an unexpected six points. Mourinho has not found it easy to let go of his irritation with events that contributed to those defeats, which puts a different light on the party line that his team – the last English club standing in the Champions League semi-finals, no less – are rank outsiders for the title.
Mourinho decided to stay silent after his team won at Swansea this weekend. Quite what he is thinking, and plotting, is anybody’s guess. But we can have a decent stab at it. Four more games. Shhh. Just don’t say it loud enough for anyone else to hear. The outsiders are waiting in the shadows, ready to crash the party.