Residents of Cobham in Surrey can stop scanning the sky above Chelsea's training ground for Roman Abramovich's helicopter.
Barring oligarchical brainstorms Carlo Ancelotti will survive 2010. A 1-0 victory that would have been yawn-inducingly predictable in the good old days was hailed as catharsis.
"The league is open again. It's not closed for us," announced Ancelotti after Florent Malouda's disputed goal restored Chelsea to the Champions League spots after their brief encounter with the malnourished and the poor outside the top four. "All of a sudden they're right back in the mix," said Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, as football's lighthouse beam searched for another coach to torture.
Southern softies used to fear trips to Bolton. This time the trepidation was reversed. In their current mess Chelsea must have dreaded the Trotters heading south with their cool, new passing game: an emblem of renaissance to contrast with the unhappiness of England's champions.
Here at Stamford Bridge no one knew quite where to file 2010: in the club museum or a rubbish skip. Midway through the year now closing Abramovich's club ascended to a League and FA Cup double. By the end, 2011 glowed like a sanctuary in a dark forest. Resolution: must reacquire authority, must regain conviction, before damning reviews turn to obituaries. They escaped that fate against a buoyant Bolton side but are still nowhere near the level of Ancelotti's first campaign.
Over-reactions to a run of bad results are a staple of Premier League life. This is a histrionic business. But there was nothing shallow about this particular anxiety attack. It showed in Ancelotti's agitation on the touchline as he hectored the fourth official and in Didier Drogba's bizarre 18th-minute free-kick, which ballooned across the Bolton penalty box and out for a throw-in on the opposite flank.
The downturn in Chelsea's form was no media fabrication. In their worst league run since 1999, Ancelotti's men had won only once in eight league matches stretching back to the 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on 7 November. In the fog of a west-London night they already sat outside the four Champions League spots. Another defeat would have sent them into the new year in sixth position for the first time since 2001-2002.
The Stamford Bridge crowd were so subdued you could hear every John Terry bark. There was no avoiding the captain's determination to instil fresh urgency into a side Ancelotti accused of "sleeping" after Monday's 3-1 defeat at Arsenal. Terry's urgings do carry a didactic menace but they could not disguise the team's slow and sloppy passing or their loss of confidence.
Until the slip from top of the table in October to fifth in late December, it was assumed Chelsea's iron sense of self would always recover. Abramovich would jump out of his chopper to read the riot act or the players would correct the problem in one of their truth-and-reconciliation sit-downs. Or the manager would be paid a lot of money to go away and another big name would saunter in.
This time we saw a new and disturbing element: virulent self-doubt, which is no respecter of past achievements or celebrity. Not only were these Chelsea players questioning their ability to remain a top-four club, but their supporters were querying it too. At half-time Terry and co left the field to a low rumble of boos after Bolton had been the more decisive and precise.
Signs of stress were everywhere. During an injury break Nicolas Anelka jogged over for an impassioned tactical debate with Ancelotti and his coaching staff. Throughout you could see Frank Lampard straining to be the match-changing presence he was before injury intervened in August. Only when Drogba struck a post from a Lampard diagonal pass on 49 minutes did the home crowd jolt to life.
Twelve minutes later they found the light when Drogba broke on the right and slid the ball across for Malouda to score. Overcome by relief Drogba threw himself into the first row of spectators. The kind of celebration normally reserved for goals against Barcelona was wheeled out for one against Bolton Wanderers. But it was not the full deliverance. Soon Petr Cech was tipping a Stuart Holden header over his bar and Drogba was clearing off his own line.
Chelsea were a team relearning their game. They passed like men stretching every mental faculty to remember how they did it when life was sweet. Where their passing was once instinctive, now it was weighed down by too much thought. Often, the errant passer would jerk his arms in frustration. These small gestures of exasperation spoke of a wider loss of rhythm.
History says great teams tend not to die in a two-month spiral. Decline is more gradual. Of all their recent fixtures, though, this was Chelsea's T-junction game. Their credibility as defending champions was in jeopardy. They were on the Liverpool highway to the Europa League. Spurs and Manchester City would be the eager beneficiaries of imperial decline. The autopsies would say Chelsea had stopped investing and placed all their hopes in a small core of ageing players supported by homegrown prospects who were still too busy being boys to perform the work of men.
These elegies are postponed – perhaps cancelled. Bad teams look over the edge and fall. Good ones peek and then pull back. Instinct and desperation tend to save them.
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