As the dust settles on Monday’s dramatic and controversial game at Stamford Bridge, with the consequences still to be decided – FA punishments and potential appeals notwithstanding – there were some significant storylines that might have been overlooked amid all the drama. While attention switched immediately to the fact that Leicester had been crowned Premier League champions, the future Chelsea coach Antonio Conte must have watched the game scratching his head. By the end, there were plenty more questions than answers. Here are just some of them:
1. Where was the second half Chelsea all season?
For much of the last 35 league matches, this group of players had gone through the motions in games. They have drawn at home to Watford, West Brom and Stoke and played with a lack of urgency each time. Late goals have helped get results against Everton (3-3), Southampton (2-1) and West Ham (2-2) but all too often, it has been too little and too late. The sight of Diego Costa chasing down opposition center-backs in the 90th minute, as he did to Toby Alderweireld Monday night, has been a rare one. Why is this? Interim coach Guus Hiddink said it had not been an issue under him: “I cannot complain during my spell about the commitment of the team. Before that - I don’t know. I can't comment about that.” Is he serious? The mentality of the Chelsea players against Spurs, as they protected a long-standing unbeaten home run against them, and did all they could to prevent them winning the league, should have been apparent all season. But it most certainly has not been.
2. How do you explain Eden Hazard’s game-changing cameo?
No one has the answer to explain how Eden Hazard can go from Player of the Year to bench-warmer inside one season. And yet that is what has happened. Hazard gave a glimpse of the impact he could have had with his first league goal at Stamford Bridge since clinching last season’s title for Chelsea against Crystal Palace; his curling shot into the top corner against Spurs was only his third all season and culminated a sensational second-half substitute appearance in which he produced danger whenever he touched the ball.
“This is the first time in my career that I have had such a difficult spell like this," Hazard said last October. “I can't really explain it. All I know is that I will need to work hard in order to bounce back.”
Hazard has missed one month of action with a hip injury, and he told Belgian paper HLN that he is not currently fully fit. “I am at 80-85 per cent of my abilities. Physical fitness comes with games.”
Fans have speculated that Hazard has been saving himself all season for Belgium and the Euros, as this is their big chance to win a major trophy. In the national team he played second fiddle to Kevin de Bruyne in qualifying, but it seems harsh to make that accusation.
One other intriguing suggestion for Hazard’s slump, and indeed for most of the Chelsea squad, came from football analyst Dan Altman. He wondered if the row from the opening day of the season, when coach Jose Mourinho publicly berated doctor Eva Carneiro, resulting in her losing her job, affected the squad more than was thought.
There are 13 players in the Chelsea squad who are fathers, Altman wrote in this analysis and 11 of them have daughters. “If these fathers – and the mothers of their children – want equal opportunities for their daughters, then they probably won’t look kindly on a successful, professional woman being treated shabbily by their boss,” he wrote. There is no evidence this is the case, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
3. Who will be in goal next season?
Asmir Begovic has made 16 Premier League appearances this season, which is more than twice as many as Petr Cech made for Chelsea last season. The Bosnian goalkeeper cannot have expected so much game-time, but has deputized smartly to cover for Thibaut Courtois’s two red cards (against Swansea and Manchester City) and knee injury sustained in training last September.
That injury, as reported by ONE World Sports earlier this week, could leave to the highly-rated Belgian leaving the club. He has told new coach Antonio Conte that he no longer wishes to work with goalkeeping coach Christoph Lollichon but it is unlikely that the Frenchman will be shown the door. Lollichon is a favorite of owner Roman Abramovich and if he was ever going to leave it would have been last summer when Petr Cech, whom he worked with at Rennes and Chelsea, joined Arsenal.
If Courtois were to issue a him-or-me ultimatum, he might not get the answer he wants. And so, despite Chelsea having a young goalkeeper who won the title in his first season as a starter at the club – and having invested years in Courtois, three of which were on loan at Atletico Madrid, where Lollichon would regularly travel to monitor and feed back on his performances – the goalkeeper spot could be up for grabs again.
Reports have linked Chelsea with a move for Inter’s Samir Handanovic or Barcelona’s Marce-Andre ter Stegen, Amid all this, Courtois has been quoted by Sporza as saying, “I’m still a Chelsea player. I’ll start pre-season with Chelsea. Next season we’ll go for the title.”
But this is dangerous territory for the Blues, and they have been here before. Courtois is 23 and would be wanted by most clubs in the world. His departure could come back to haunt Chelsea in years to come. You only have to look at the success of Kevin de Bruyne to know how painful it can be.
The challenge for Conte is to find answers to these questions: to bottle that second-half spirit for next season, to bring out the Hazard 2014-15 version, not this season’s, and to either smooth out any differences between Courtois and Lollichon, or make a decision that improves the Chelsea side. He doesn’t start work officially until after the Euros but you’d hope he’s already starting thinking about the answers.