The deposed Premier League champions made their way back from England’s north-east with plenty to reflect on. It is a while since Chelsea knew their defence of the title was over. Now they can be fairly certain of far longer, and less glamorous journeys through Europe than the one they made to Newcastle United to bring to a drab end an unfulfilling league season.
It will be midweek Europa League expeditions from September, not the more luminous Uefa Champions League that a club of Chelsea’s status, wealth and prestige would regard as their natural entitlement. Dismantled by a vibrant Newcastle, they were never close to scrambling up from fifth place in the table, and overhauling Liverpool, who extended their advantage over Chelsea from two points to five.
Chelsea have an FA Cup final on Saturday in which to pursue a more upbeat close to their dispiriting campaign. They will certainly hope to give their former manager, Jose Mourinho, now of fellow cup finalists Manchester United, more to concern him than they did another former manager, Rafa Benitez. Benitez’s Newcastle, whose top-half finish makes them outstanding overachievers, imposed an authority from the outset which Chelsea never wrestled back.
It was hard not to feel for the band of Chelsea supporters who made the longest away trip on their Premier League calendar. At least they had a bright, sun-kissed afternoon for it. And they had some positive football to admire. Trouble was, it came from Newcastle, who had tested Thibaut Courtois well before Dwight Gayle efficiently headed the opening goal when Courtois, under pressure from Jacob Murphy, could only flap a high ball towards the diminutive striker.
The Blue backlash? Meagre. Had Ayoze Perez shown a little more poise before firing just wide on the stroke of half time, the Chelsea players might have gone into the break further behind. There, they learned that Liverpool were already leading 2-0 at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, ending any suspense about the identity of the top four.
It would be soon be 3-0 at Anfield. While Benitez, the ex of Chelsea’s dugout was outmanoeuvring Antonio Conte’s limp Londoners, two ex-Chelsea forwards, Mohamed Salah and Dominic Solanke, were scoring for Liverpool to widen the gap. It’s an all-too-familiar irony: The errors made by Chelsea over the past few years in the players they willingly let go keep resonating, in lists of key contributors to clubs who have finished above them, like Salah, or Kevin de Bruyne, or Romelu Lukaku.
But there are more immediate reflections to be made by Chelsea’s strategists on what went wrong this season, the abrupt decline from the team brilliantly guided to the 2017 Premier League title. There is recruitment. Midfielders such as Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley, both in the starting line-up, conspicuously failed to reinforce a title-holding squad.
At Newcastle, Olivier Giroud, one of the more impressive newcomers, gave Chelsea their best moment, attempting a resourceful flick of his heel, well saved by Martin Dubravka. Barkley also made one strong run and shot at Dubravka. But that chance was sandwiched between two second-half Perez goals, fine poaching efforts both, as he first brushed a drive from Jonjo Shelvey past Thibaut Courtois, and then finished off a Shelvey set-piece, met by Florian Lejeune, which Chelsea’s defenders neither anticipated nor reacted to with any nous.
Conte has winced more often than he wished to at poor defending this season. This was another sloppy day.
Hard to imagine Conte’s men can be quite so ordinary at Wembley on Saturday. But if he felt some of his fringe players, like Barkley or Bakayoko, might seize the opportunity of a last audition for a cup final starting place, he was disappointed.
Conte will shoulder, rightly, much blame for the way the balloon burst for the Blues in the Premier League in 2017/18, and all the signs are that the FA Cup showdown will be his last knockout assignment for the club, that the Europa League campaign will be somebody else’s mission.
What the managers said
Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez:
"When you have the fans behind the team all season, this is the best way to finish," he told Sky Sports. "We knew that if we started with a high tempo we could keep the fans behind the team. With good spells and bad spells through the season we are happy to finish 10th."
Leading unfancied Newcastle to a top-half finish will only add to Benitez's stock. The Spaniard has a strained relationship with club owner Mike Ashley, but the former Liverpool, Inter Milan and Real Madrid manager gave the clearest indication yet that he is willing to see out the remaining year on his contract at St James' Park.
"We can enjoy today but there is still room for improvement. There is another year on my contract and I will try to do my best to move forward."
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte:
"We deserved to lose because our start wasn’t good and we suffered by losing every ball. Newcastle were more determined than us. We didn’t lose our Champions League place today, we had chances in the last two games, but to finish the season this way is not good for anyone connected to the club. When you are at the end of the season, this performance can happen, but the first person to answer for this must be the coach. I wasn’t able to convey that determination to my players."
When asked if this was his last Premier League game in charge of Chelsea, Conte said: "I have a contract and I am committed to this club."