By Abhishek Mehrotra
It began with a stinging loss at Wembley and ended with a soothing title win in Amsterdam. In the interim, things briefly went off track when the much-beloved driver was replaced by a much-disliked one who struck a major pothole in Japan and couldn't prevent the bus from going over the Champions League cliff; a veteran was almost flung out and a defender was bitten before the smooth road was finally found once again.
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How does one even begin to analyse a season which Chelsea began as European champions and FA Cup holders and finished as victors of the Europa League? It depends on the perspective one takes.
Based purely on the expectations that arose from the last campaign's success, you'd have to say it was a failure.
Twelve games into the campaign the Blues owner, showing a deplorable lack of patience, and class, sacked the man who'd brought them unprecedented success. About a month later, they became the first team in Champions League history whose title defence couldn't make it past the group stage. Their players also found time to blame a referee for racism - an accusation that raised a massive furore before disappearing quietly into the ether.
Soon, their title challenge was following suit.
"Chelsea, City and ourselves are creating that little gap from the rest and whilst I cannot be dead certain, I would be surprised if one of us didn't win it," Ferguson said in October when the Blues were sitting at the top of the table, a point clear of both Manchester United and City. Earlier, then City boss Roberto Mancini had expressed the same sentiments.
By late November, Roberto di Matteo was gone and Chelsea were four points behind the leaders. After Rafael Benitez's first five Premier League games in charge, they were 12 points behind United, with both the FIFA Club World Cup and the Champions League trophy having slipped out of their hands.
Benitez bore the brunt of the fans' ire. Despised at Stamford Bridge during his time at Liverpool, he was greeted by discontent bordering on hatred. Supporters booing their clubs off the pitch after a particularly bad performance is not uncommon. But this was different. This was discontent, hatred even , boiling over every time the Spaniard stepped on to the turf.
The atmosphere at the club that had begun the season on such an optimistic note, and with such a huge splash in the transfer market (£92 million spent with £57 million on Eden Hazard and Oscar alone), was now positively toxic. On the pitch, Branislav Ivanovic was greeted by a revolving door of defensive partners as John Terry and Gary Cahill struggled with injury. Domestically, Fernando Torres, despite a fantastic work-rate, continued to resemble an expensive prop disguised as a striker while both Victor Moses and Demba Ba (at a combined cost of £16.5 million) resembled doppelgangers of their former selves.
If their overall season was solely graded on these issues, they'd barely manage a C.
But then, there's the other perspective. Despite all the upheaval at the end of last year, despite all the talks of it being a club in crisis, despite the continuing failure of their marksmen, and despite the presence of a loathed manager, Chelsea finished with silverware and comfortably secured a place in next season's Champions League, showing glimpses of some superb football in the process.
Is there a more effective and more artistic midfield trio in England than Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar? When they were on song, there wasn't a better sight in the Premier League. Together, the three scored or assisted in 12 goals out of the 17 that Chelsea scored in their last seven games of the season - a stretch during which they were unbeaten. Over the course of the season though, only Mata put in consistently good performances - which might have been frustrating for the fans, but bodes well for the future given that both Hazard and Oscar are bound to improve further.
What of the other new signing - Cesar Azpilicueta? Arguably the best of the lot. The Spaniard has all the hallmarks of the modern full-back - pace and quality delivery up front, defensive solidity and calmness at the back. His display against Gareth Bale in Chelsea's 2-2 draw with Tottenham last month was one of the best defensive performances this season, coming as it did while facing the man of the moment.
Up front, even though Torres (eight goals in 36 appearances) and Moses (one goal in 23 appearances) struggled in the league, they came good in the one tournament that Chelsea ended up winning. Torres grabbed six goals, Moses four - they're not as ineffective as is widely believed.
The most encouraging development for the club might be Frank Lampard finally signing a new deal. Forget the fact that Chelsea dealt with the whole situation tastelessly - leaving the veteran to fend for himself in front of the media while they pondered whether to offer him an extension.
Apart from obvious footballing reasons, Lampard presence will be of immense help if reports of Jose Mourinho making a return turn out to be true. The midfielder is one of the few left over from the squad that the Portuguese had in his first stint and will be key in helping the others get used to the ways of the new manager, and vice versa.
For all their failures to retain various titles, Chelsea did cut down on the gap with the leaders from a whopping 25 points in 2011-12 to 13 this time round. Mourinho will take over the reins of a team that does seem ready to launch a serious bid for the title once again.
They do need some personnel over the summer, no doubt. With John Terry increasingly injury-prone and Gary Cahill suffering more than his fair share of niggles, they need the cover of another centre-back to partner the excellent Ivanovic. Mata, and especially Hazard, for all the attacking verve, need to track back more frequently while the defensive midfield could do with some bolstering as well. The foundation is all there, though, for a silverware-laden 2013/14 campaign.
But then, how should this season be judged? Should it be judged on promise unfulfilled or should it be judged on the promise on the horizon? You decide.