Players' goodbyes and tears after Norwich City stalemate carry sense of breaking with many certainties of Blues' past decade
If there was something fitting about Chelsea's home season ending in rugged, unflinching stalemate against Norwich City, this was also a match that carried with it a wider sense of sunlit departures. After the final whistle, as Chelsea's players set off on an end-of-season lap to applaud the fans still in the stands, it was tempting to wonder how many of those out on the pitch – with Ashley Cole at least in tears – might turn out to have spent this strangely low-key match waving a more protracted goodbye.
It was an odd afternoon all round, a match that did not so much tick by as slowly deflate. Understandably, given their Champions League semi-final defeat in midweek, for Chelsea this scoreless draw felt at times like the football equivalent of the last day of term where the kids are allowed to make paper aeroplanes and play desultory games of snakes and ladders and think about the summer to come.
Chelsea's commitment did not dip, and the Premier League title is still technically possible even after this result. But they looked like a team with their thoughts already on next season, assured now of third place and playing out the last quarter of a drowsy, sun-kissed match with six players on the pitch who could yet – depending how the pieces fall – end up leaving in the summer.
If the real story here is the re-animation of Norwich's hopes of staying up, at least until Sunderland play West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday, then the afternoon also seemed to capture Chelsea's own season in miniature: good enough to beat the best in the league, with a clear and supremely executed gameplan against opponents who keep the ball; but without the teeth or the guile to score enough goals against teams their league position suggests they should beat.
In the final minute of the game Eden Hazard jinked left and right, looked up, saw no options, and simply slapped the ball back with something approaching disdain to Branislav Ivanovic, who punted a shot over the bar. It was a moment to sum up a match in which Chelsea seemed to have no real attacking rhythm at all beyond passing and running and hoping their superior pedigree would cause Norwich to crumble.
Credit goes to the visitors, who were resolute, and might have had a first-half penalty. For Chelsea, though, the sense of a wider deceleration was palpable. These are even more than most years transitional times for this Chelsea team, a trophy-laden force that has thrummed its way through the last decade with parts flying off and drivers yanked out from behind the wheel but somehow always with its engine and axis intact. Chelsea's manager has talked openly about the need to reshape the gristlier parts of this team, to replace that dogged but ageing central spine. Thibaut Courtois, Nemanja Matic and – barring accidents – Diego Costa could yet have a defining role to play next season.
Chelsea spent the first half of a match that felt at times like a testimonial, or a legends' game, passing the ball across a flaky Stamford Bridge pitch, their attacks wavering, halting and turning back, like a group of blue-shirted men groping for the light switch in the dark. André Schürrle, their liveliest attacker, hit a post with a fine low shot on the run after a lovely pass from Matic. But really you do have to wonder what part Chelsea's manager takes in this attacking impotence. If Willian, Schürrle, Mohamed Salah and Demba Ba do not look like the front four of a title-winning team, then that starting midfield tripod is also a creative notch below the now-disbanded Oscar-Juan Mata-Eden Hazard unit of last season's spring successes.
After half-time Hazard, on as a substitute, made some nimble-footed progress and might have had a penalty. The Belgian remains the most notable possible departure, a peculiar turn of events given his fine season, and also the fact that in his absence this team have a distinct lack of real attacking stars. Here he flickered once or twice as Norwich also began to come into the game in the second half.
And what about that ageing spine? There was something elegiac about John Terry's programme notes. "I want to say a big thank you for always showing me massive support on and off the field … It was my dream when I arrived at 14 to go on and do what I've done." It wasn't a goodbye exactly, but the words still of a player who has yet to sign a new contract.
Terry, Cole and Frank Lampard, a defining trio of the gold-rush years, are all out of contract in the summer. They had their own shared moment of farewell – for now – with the Chelsea fans at the end. And Terry is, of course, an important player here for other reasons, the last homegrown player to succeed at Chelsea, and an enduringly fine, neat, tactically astute centre-half who has often played through pain over the last successful decade.
It is easy, from the outside to mock the 'Captain, Leader, Legend' rhetoric, but Terry is the central pin around which this Chelsea team has been relentlessly refashioned in the billionaire era. Both the team and the club will look, and feel, very different when he goes.
As José Mourinho said at the end, with a non-committal shrug, "It will be a long summer for us."