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May 12, 2014

End of season review: Chelsea

Intro

It has been a strange though ultimately satisfactory season. Following the emotional roller coaster of the Rafael Benitez reign, prior to the start of the campaign a top-three finish and participation in the quarterfinals of the Champions League would have been perfectly acceptable. In those terms, the targets have been exceeded. There remains a nagging frustration, however, that the Premier League title was there for the taking, especially considering that both Manchester City and Liverpool were beaten twice each. Had Chelsea possessed a little more penetration against organised defences, surely they would have become champions.

Star pupil

There are several contenders, especially among the back four, who were magnificent all season, with the exception of the brief confusion on set pieces during the autumn. Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry and Gary Cahill would all be worthy winners. Even so, it is impossible to look any further than Eden Hazard, who was so often the difference between Chelsea and their opponents. He ended the season as the club's top goal scorer, though such is his abundance of talent that his return of 17 goals still feels relatively small.

More than his goals, it was his ability to hold up the ball and wriggle his way out of tight spaces to either relieve pressure or set the team on the front foot that proved invaluable. In fact, Hazard's very best display came with a virtuoso performance at the Etihad Stadium in which he neither scored nor assisted on the winning goal. As long as he can be kept out of PSG's clutches in the summer, he can be the man to lead Chelsea to major silverware next season.

Detention

This is a difficult decision as there was nobody who totally disgraced themselves. Ramires has come in for a lot of criticism from some sections of the Chelsea support, and he has certainly been a little frustrating in what has probably been his least impressive campaign since joining the club. However, his boundless energy, versatility and willingness to compete ensures he remains an integral part of the squad.

With that taken into account, the unfortunate Fernando Torres gets the nod. He might have scored against Atletico Madrid and again on the final day of the season, but 11 goals in all competitions is just not good enough. There were signs of real promise early in the season, not least in his barnstorming display at White Hart Lane, though by the closing weeks of the campaign he was reduced to watching from the bench as the seemingly forgotten Demba Ba netted pivotal goals in his stead. Considering the trials and tribulations since his arrival for 50 million pounds three and a half years ago, it will be best for all concerned if he brings his association with Chelsea to a close this summer.

Teachers' notes

Unlike some other managers in the league, Jose Mourinho once again showed that he is not afraid to adapt his thinking if the original plan is not working, as seen by his midseason switch from an expansive game to a more defensively cohesive one. It resulted in Chelsea conceding the fewest number of goals in the division, which was imperative to any title challenge given the paucity of striking options at his disposal. The tactical masterclass that earned a 1-0 win away at Manchester City will live particularly long in the memory, though the way he set the team up for the 6-0 destruction of Arsenal was equally impressive.

Mourinho was not always perfect in his decision-making, though. His bold switch to a 4-4-2 so early in the second half during the return match against Atletico Madrid ensured that Chelsea lost all defensive shape while offering little extra in attack. It was clearly a mistake especially seeing as just a single goal stood between them and a Champions League final. That was a mere aberration, however, and being eliminated in the last four by a team who are a point away from being champions of Spain is hardly a disgrace. Mourinho might have emerged from the season trophy-less, but his influence remains undiminished and his tactical acumen will be vital to any success that Chelsea enjoy next season.

Final grade

B-plus. Being involved in the title race until the last week of the season is something that Chelsea have not experienced since they were last crowned champions in 2010, which, along with a place among the Champions League semifinalists, means that this has most certainly been a season of progress. A sensible and coherent approach to the transfer market will be the key to making the step up to winning one of the big trophies, and it is clear that the most pressing area for reinforcement is up front. With the defence rock-solid, bringing Thibaut Courtois into the fold should only stiffen it up further, though it would be nice to see a central playmaker brought in to help create from deep in the manner that Xabi Alonso does for Real Madrid. A few intelligent changes in personnel can see the Blues overhaul their rivals next season.