Jose Mourinho wanted three points at St James’ Park, but a defeat isn’t all bad news for Chelsea.
When the final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge on October 26th, 2008, Chelsea’s 86 match unbeaten home run came to an end. Xabi Alonso’s deflected shot had sealed a 1-0 win for Liverpool, and ended one of English sport’s memorable records.
Surprisingly, many Chelsea fans were relieved that the amazing series was at an end. It had made watching the last half an hour of home games almost unbearably tense for fans: part of the reason Michael Essien’s late goal against Arsenal was so wildly celebrated was that the Gunners had been prevented from breaking the run.
Apart from its dangerous effects on fans and their heart-rates, the record was also affecting the team. As games wore on, when the scores were level Chelsea would sit back more than they would otherwise have done; subconsciously afraid of going all out for the win, for fear of losing.
Once the record was gone, this weight was lifted, and the Blues have since been able to trade the occasional home loss for the ability to turn draws into wins.
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This Chelsea side were a long way from matching Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’, but the media pressure was already accumulating, and it would have risen to extreme levels before long. By losing to Newcastle with less than half the season gone, Chelsea have removed this weight from their minds, and allowed themselves to focus on their real goal: winning the title.
There are plenty of other benefits of losing this record early too. The mental effects of losing their first game when the record was a realistic prospect would have been much more severe. It could have destabilised the side in Europe, or even worse, caused a wobble that jeopardised the title itself.
Tactically, Mourinho’s side could well have been affected by the same aversion to overcommitment that afflicted the team when it had an unbeaten home record. The manager would also have found himself under pressure to pick the strongest possible team in the league for the entirety of the season – now that going unbeaten is impossible, he can rest players in the league without fear when the Champions League reaches its climax.
Before last weekend, Chelsea had been handed the title by the media already; now they find themselves only three points ahead of Manchester City. While there have not been any signs of complacency in this most determined of Blues sides, Mourinho will be happy to have had this wakeup call in December, rather than in May.