On March 22, Chelsea beat the absolute tar out of Arsenal. At that time, it seemed clear that they were the best side in the Premier League. Fast forward less than a month: they've just lost to Sunderland and now look much more likely to finish third in the league than first.
What happened? Arguably, nothing at all.
Chelsea have been a paper tiger for quite some time. It's just that the Arsenal game threw us off and made us believe that they were title favorites. A 6-0 drubbing of a fellow contender and a then-title rival was impressive, but it now looks like an odd outlier* in a large group of mediocre league performances.
Jose Mourinho has undoubtedly improved Chelsea, but the market wasn't conducive to him buying a top striker in the summer. Instead, he settled on Samuel Eto'o, who Anzhi Makhachkala paid Chelsea to take off their hands. He's been a solid, serviceable player, but one who is obviously past his prime. He's produced more than you'd expect to get from a player you're paid to take.
The problem isn't Eto'o, it's that he's Chelsea's best striker. Fernando Torres has been poor since he first put on a Chelsea shirt and Demba Ba has always been a great starter for a mid-table team, but pure backup for a top team. They're not an inspiring group.
That group has been disappointing at finishing their chances, especially recently. They're probably due for a slight uptick in form, but they're never going to produce at anywhere near the level that Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have for Liverpool this season, or that Sergio Aguero does for Manchester City when he's actually fit. They're a merely adequate group, and in recent matches against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Swansea and now Sunderland, they've been poor.
There are other reasons Chelsea lost on Saturday -- after all, they did concede two goals -- but good finishing would have erased bad officiating, bad goalkeeping and an uncharacteristic mistake by Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea had numerous chances to take a lead before halftime and plenty more before Sunderland scored their second. But Eto'o could have done better on quite a few occasions, Ba missed a sitter and Torres was Torres.
Chelsea fans do have something to look forward to, however. It's highly unlikely they're going to head into next season with this same group of strikers. They're almost certainly going to offload Ba and sign a world class player in his place, and they're going to improve further if they can find a way to offload Torres. Suddenly, the Blues have a superstar, another very nice player and Eto'o as a true backup up top. That plus a full season of Nemanja Matic, a healthy Marco van Ginkel and a couple of other potential signings should be a recipe for success in the 2014-15 season.
But that's unlikely to make this season sting less for Chelsea. They had one hand on the title and they've thrown it away with bad results against teams in the bottom half of the table. The only solace they can take out of this situation is that they're unlikely to give the Premier League crown away in similar fashion ever again.
*The Tottenham win, by the way, shouldn't be counted as another example of Chelsea showing off their title credentials. Tim Sherwood is an insane jackass and all results that teams record against Tottenham need to be viewed through that lens.