Six Matches That Will Help Decide Chelsea's Title Hopes Next Season
The Beatles once sang of a long and winding road and it's what awaits Jose Mourinho and his charges if they are going to make the Portuguese's return to Stamford Bridge a successful one next season.
A Premier League campaign is one of twists and turns, where the pendulum often swings. In one month you can be flying high, en route to glory only for it to slip through your fingers, while a run of victories can turn an otherwise bad year into a positive one.
Indeed, Chelsea have experienced both sides of the coin after leading the way last term before a home defeat to Manchester United in October saw their season begin to unravel before doing just enough to finish third in the table.
The Blues will face a new-look United a little earlier this term, with their first clash of the season coming on just the second weekend of the new campaign.
That fixture will give us some early drama no doubt, but in terms of helping decide where the title will ultimately reside come May, with some 36 games to follow, it will not be as vital as some we have seen in previous years.
But what are the games that will impact Chelsea's title challenge? Bleacher Report takes a look at six that will play their part.
October 26, 2013: Manchester City (H)
This fixture finished goalless last season and in the immediate aftermath of Rafa Benitez's appointment as interim manager after Roberto Di Matteo was fired, the game itself playing second fiddle to headlines of Chelsea fans protesting against the Spaniard.
Where managers are concerned, Blues fans will be hoping they're not in a similar position to last term when Manchester City come to town, but of more importance, their first home clash of the season against any of 2012-13's top five will see them needing to take all three points.
Chelsea would have played Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur away by this stage, so they will need to build a platform against their title rivals with their home form, regardless of how the league table is shaping up.
The initial reading of the fixture list plays favorably into Chelsea's hands, with many of their big games played outside of Champions League weeks. This clash with City is the only fixture against any of last season's top five that follows a midweek European fixture, though, so how much influence that has on proceedings, only time will tell.
Chelsea defeated Arsenal, Manchester United and Spurs at varying stages of 2012/13, but lost twice against City in the three times they faced them.
Victory at Stamford Bridge on Oct. 26 will provide a major psychological boost and exorcise any demons that may be lurking.
December 26, 2013: Swansea City (H)
When considering how, when and where a championship can be won, it's somewhat easy to overlook fixtures not involving the main movers and shakers in the Premier League.
Chelsea's clash with Swansea City at Stamford Bridge comes on Boxing Day, a time of year that is traditionally known for throwing up upsets and surprise results.
That the Blues faces Swansea—a team that shocked them with a 2-0 win in the Capital One Cup semifinals at Stamford Bridge last season—over the Christmas period will be warning enough to Jose Mourinho, but the fact that this fixture is sandwiched between games with Arsenal and Liverpool will mean the Portuguese has probably already highlighted it as a potential banana skin.
Seasons collapse so much over Christmas that the mere mention of teams needing to sustain their form during the festive period immediately smacks of a cliche. But this year it will certainly ring true for Chelsea, who face Arsenal, Swansea, Liverpool and Southampton over a 12-day period.
Come out of that looking healthy and the title could very well be Mourinho's to lose. But fall to Swansea and who knows what the clash with Liverpool on Dec. 28 will have in store?
January 18, 2014: Manchester United (H)
All eyes will be on Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford at the start of the 2013-14 campaign in August, but of more significance will be when the two teams come face-to-face at Stamford Bridge in the New Year.
The Premier League season will be just past the halfway point and the league table will tell us much about who has a chance of winning the title or not.
It's often at this time of year that Manchester United really kick into gear, but the club built that reputation under Sir Alex Ferguson, who has retired, being replaced by David Moyes.
At this stage, Moyes' United are an unknown quantity, but we'll know far more come January. Will they be challenging for honors? Will Moyes even be at the club still?
With Ferguson's departure, we just don't know, but it doesn't mean Chelsea facing the Red Devils at Stamford Bridge in January isn't going to play a part in shaping the season for both these teams.
After they face United, Chelsea will have just three more games against their other Premier League rivals Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who are all expected to be among the leading pack.
These games are the proverbial "six-pointers," so taking all three against United will be paramount in Chelsea's hunt for Premier League glory.
March 8, 2014: Tottenham Hotspur (H)
The tension was palpable when Tottenham Hotspur visited Stamford Bridge at the back end of the 2012-13 campaign, but what can we expect this coming season?
Probably more of the same is the honest answer, but whereas it was Champions League qualification on the line in May, it could be a whole lot more this time out.
Spurs' rebuilding project under Andre Villas-Boas will be a year older and the expectation is his team is going to be putting up a serious title charge. With Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge, the Blues already look stronger and are among the early title favorites themselves.
Chelsea and Spurs meet at White Hart Lane in September, but come March, points against your rivals are like gold dust and the Blues will need to make home advantage count here.
This is never a fixture in need of extra spice, but it is currently scheduled to come almost two years to the day that Villas-Boas was fired by Chelsea on Mar. 4, 2012, so he will be even more eager to get one over his former employers and mentor Mourinho.
March 22, 2014: Arsenal (H)
Chelsea will be hoping their Champions League campaign goes somewhat better than their efforts last season when they dropped out of the competition altogether at the group stages for the first time.
Should all go according to plan, they will experience another end-of-season fixture pile up similar to last term, with this clash at home to Arsenal potentially in the heart of it.
The second batch of games in the Champions League Round of 16 is scheduled for Mar. 18/19, 2014. If the Blues are indeed in the draw they will be hoping for a second leg at home as a few days later they entertain the Gunners.
Depending on their own Champions League form, it could be the same for Arsene Wenger's men, too, of course, but facing your rivals in the immediate aftermath of a challenging European tie is never ideal—especially when it comes at the tail end of the season.
April 26, 2014: Liverpool (A)
"Ghost" goals, players biting each other and last-minute equalisers—there's hardly ever a dull moment when Chelsea and Liverpool come to blows.
If all goes to plan at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's visit to Anfield in 2013-14 could be their sweetest and most dramatic yet, though.
In 2005, Chelsea had just won the Premier League with a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers, when they ventured to the North West to face Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.
Luis Garcia scored his infamous "ghost goal" to send the Reds through to face AC Milan in the final with a 1-0 aggregate win and, ever since, the Blues have made no secret of the injustice they felt.
With Jose Mourinho—their manager that night—back at the club, could they get the perfect revenge by claiming the league title at Anfield?
This clash comes with just three league games remaining, so without looking to tempt fate for the Blues, there's a very real possibility they could wrap things up at the home of one of their fiercest rivals.
Surely that would end the pain they felt all those years ago.