Chelsea must channel Terry grit to avoid nightmare Tottenham title win
Chelsea's 2-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday provided plenty of topics for discussion related to the Blues' chances of securing the Premier League title.
London rivals Tottenham are just four points behind the long-term pacesetters and on an impressive winning streak, which reached seven with Saturday's 4-0 demolition of Bournemouth.
Can Spurs catch Chelsea? If Blues boss Antonio Conte fails to reinvigorate his players and get them performing consistently for their remaining games at the same level which catapulted them to a position of dominance earlier in the season, the answer is yes.
It's a horrific prospect for Chelsea supporters, the majority of whom would view losing out to Tottenham in the title race as a nightmare outcome worse than being relegated. It's that serious. The fact the two clubs meet each other in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley this Saturday adds a pinch of psychological spice to the concoction in the cauldron and makes for a compelling sideshow to the main event, which is winning the league.
Right now, Spurs have momentum, and they have goals in them. Conversely, the Blues lack consistency and lone striker Diego Costa has failed to find the net in his past five outings.
Fortunately for Chelsea, Conte was humble enough after the United defeat to take full blame. Unlike the surprise 2-1 home loss to Crystal Palace when his side created chance after chance and were denied at least a draw by some inspired goalkeeping, against United the Blues lacked motivation and cohesion. They failed to get a single shot on goal.
The last time Chelsea played so poorly was six months previously in the first half of the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates. That loss was a catalyst for change at Stamford Bridge, and Conte needs to re-invoke the never-say-die spirit and passion that transformed the Blues into serial winners earlier in the campaign.
Worryingly, against United, after Marcus Rashford had given the home side an early lead, the growing sense was there would only be one outcome. Excuse-wise, Ander Herrera's blatant handball in the buildup to Rashford's goal brought with it a volley of protests, but Jose Mourinho's side would surely have prevailed even if it had been ruled out.
It's true that Conte's preparations for the game had been thrown out of kilter: first by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois sustaining an ankle injury and then Marcos Alonso succumbing to illness during the warm-up. But it would be lame to use the changes enforced on Conte as the reasons for the lacklustre performance.
Monday saw Chelsea and club captain John Terry make a joint statement confirming the long-serving skipper would depart Stamford Bridge at the end of the season. Terry may have fallen down the pecking order after his early season injury layoff, but he advised that he was fully committed to helping the club achieve success. And by that, Terry is certain to mean adding two more major trophies to add to the club record haul of 14 he has won in a 22-year career at Stamford Bridge.
If Conte is looking for some additional help to inspire his troops to go the extra mile to secure a league and cup double, then Terry will be only too willing to step up to the mark. The Chelsea boss will no doubt already be aware of the supporter rivalry between Chelsea and Tottenham and the importance of mastering Spurs, but Terry has this in his DNA.
"27 years #notonmyshift" he remarked on Instagram after last season's dramatic fightback from 2-0 down in a game between the two sides at Stamford Bridge. It was a reference to the last time Spurs had won at Chelsea, and the final score of 2-2 not only preserved that unbeaten run (which still stands) but put paid to Spurs' title hopes.
Starting with the FA Cup semifinal and continuing with each of their remaining six league fixtures, Chelsea must play with the indomitable spirit they are capable of. Winning any trophy doesn't come easy, the double markedly so. The consequences of losing out are dire, but if Conte delivers, he will immediately be elevated to the same type of legend status that Terry enjoys.
It's a massive responsibility, but Conte is well equipped to make a success of the mission. Failure, as Terry will tell him repeatedly, is not an option.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco