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May 9, 2014

Chelsea face Cardiff wondering what might have been


Instead of both clubs arriving for this match with the weight of the world riding on their shoulders, Sunday's fixture between Cardiff City and Chelsea will now be played out without an ounce of tension hanging in the air. - Worrall: Jose, where did it go wrong? - Delaney: Mourinho satisfied with season As the 2013-14 season wore on, it looked increasingly likely that the outcome of this match could determine whether Chelsea would win their first Premier League crown in four years or whether the Bluebirds could get the scoreline needed to retain their status in the top flight -- or possibly even both. But with the Welsh side already condemned to spending next season in the Championship and Jose Mourinho's men officially out of contention in the title race following Manchester City's midweek victory over Aston Villa, the sense of anticlimax will be palpable at the Cardiff City Stadium. Both teams and sets of supporters will look upon the occasion with a degree of regret, although the pain will be more acute for the hosts, considering the dramas in the boardroom and dugout that only hastened their passage through the trapdoor. By comparison, Chelsea's disappointment is relatively minor, even if the nagging memories of needlessly dropped points against Stoke, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich City will not be wiped away any time soon. In a strange way, perhaps the state of affairs will have a more beneficial effect on the game as an aesthetic spectacle than would have been the case had the teams had something more tangible to play for. The spectre of relegation and the lure of the title might have created a cautious atmosphere in which players were afraid to make mistakes. Instead, with nothing but pride to play for, there is every chance that the players will be allowed to express themselves. Of course it is just as likely that the players on show will treat the game with a distinct lack of enthusiasm with thoughts already cast forward towards their summer holidays or their participation in the World Cup, but if the optimistic approach comes to fruition, then it should spell good news for the travelling fans. There have been few occasions when Chelsea have been able to sweep aside supposed lesser opposition -- unless you count Tottenham or Arsenal -- though the 4-1 win against Cardiff at Stamford Bridge in October was one of them. That day Chelsea responded to the concession of an early goal by Jordan Mutch -- courtesy of David Luiz's lapse of judgement -- to eventually romp home in the second half amid controversy over the equaliser and Mourinho being sent to the stands after becoming overly animated on the touchline. But apart from all that, the most memorable aspect of that match was the performance of Eden Hazard and the two goals he netted. The Belgian was magnificent that day and his display came in the middle of a tremendous run of individual form that was burnished by the team's attacking philosophy at the time. It has been forgotten by many neutral observers that Chelsea were a free-flowing team for the early months of the campaign and were criticised for leaking too many goals due to their positive approach. The December defeats to Stoke in the Premier League and Sunderland in the Capital One Cup prompted more defensive parsimony from Mourinho and kick-started a run of 17 games with only one loss prior to Chris Foy's refereeing debacle at Villa Park. Now that all chances of winning a trophy have disappeared for the season, Mourinho finds himself being criticised once more, this time for being too negative. In order to keep the critics at bay while adding some more silverware to the club's roll of honour, the Special One needs to find the right balance between defence and attack between the end of this season and the start of the next. But for now, Sunday offers a chance to return to the relative abandon of last autumn and allow the shackles to loosen on some of his more proactive players. A third-place finish and qualification for the Champions League group stages is confirmed, barring a ridiculous swing in goal difference, so hopefully the handbrake will be released, with entertainment assuming more importance than a watertight defence. As with the final fixture in all seasons, Sunday will also be a day of farewells even if nobody quite knows for certain who is leaving the club this summer. It doesn't take a genius, however, to work out who the main contenders might be. Fernando Torres is likely to bring down the curtain on a frustrating Chelsea career, though pivotal goals against Barcelona and Benfica on the way to two European trophies will always be remembered. Likewise, the lesser-spotted John Obi Mikel, who is being linked with a move to Inter Milan, has proved to be a regular figure of debate among Chelsea fans, yet the fact that his greatest ever performance in a blue shirt came in that victorious Champions League final should ensure a certain fondness in supporters’ hearts. Samuel Eto'o and Demba Ba's short stays in West London are expected to come to an end, though there might be the odd surprising departure. Luiz has failed to establish himself as a firm favourite of Mourinho's despite proving versatile, and he would command a significant transfer fee. Should he shine for Brazil in the World Cup, it would be little surprise to see a sizable bid lodged by one of the big hitters on the continent. Uncertainty also surrounds the futures of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole, especially given the mini-group photos they posed for along with the injured Petr Cech during last weekend's lap of appreciation, and there is every chance that this Sunday will be the last time one or more of those bona fide legends is seen wearing Chelsea blue. But before the curtain comes down on another season, there is still one more match to play. And there would be no better sendoff for those leaving the club than a resounding victory. Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell