Much of the media narrative in the lead-up to Saturday's home match against Southampton centered on Chelsea's new-found frailty and whether Jose Mourinho, his sides so renowned for their fearlessness and fortitude, was on the wane.
Midweek's insipid and ill-tempered Champions League exit was the fuel for this media-driven fan fiction. Though not entirely shocking, Wednesday's performance was indeed unusual for Chelsea - and, more widely, for those sides sculpted by the Portuguese. How then would Chelsea, on the back of widespread criticism, react, in a match made even more significant by a certain result by a certain relegation candidate?
Would the Blues fold or flourish? Turns out, neither.
Southampton, fearless in a way prime Chelsea would applaud, peerlessly clawed back into the game after conceding early and then held on late for a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea did not so much crack as stutter, relinquishing its early lead during an indolent first-half performance before rousing from the slumber after the interval in a breathless final 45 minutes. Chances arrived in swarms; they fell by the wayside, too, and as the minutes ticked away, a point earned almost seemed like a good thing.
Chelsea has now drawn three of its past four matches at Stamford Bridge. A run reminiscent of Mourinho's first stint at the club it is not, but neither is it as alarming as it could be. Saturday's result, after all, saw the Blues extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to six points. A game in hand on stumbling Manchester City, fresh from defeat to 18th-place Burnley, adds a bit more serenity to the scene.
Still, current form is a genuine worry. And to think, for a moment, it felt as if this would be a Sunday stroll.
There was gusto and pace to our play early, and it took just 10 minutes for a telling contribution to shake things up. Eden Hazard, at the heart of pretty much everything good for Chelsea these days, slalomed forward before checking and finding Branislav Ivanovic. Ivanovic, in turn, did what he's being doing all season: piling up fantasy points. His deep cross was pinpoint, and Diego Costa rose well to finish off the move. It was the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard's first goal in seven matches and, at this point, Chelsea appeared to be in fine position to push on.
Not so. Southampton, buoyed by the impressive Sadio Mané, quickly settled following the concession and then turned the match on its head by winning a penalty on 19 minutes. Lax play from Nemanja Matić near the far touchline allowed Mané to break free into the penalty area, where Matić, while striding back to pressure the ball, was deemed to have unfairly brought down the Senegalese attacker. The resulting spot kick from Dušan Tadić was poor, and nearly kept out by Thibaut Courtois, but the strike still managed to sneak through the Belgian's legs.
Whether the penalty was actually a penalty is irrelevant (though on replay, it appeared Matić had reached the ball first); Southampton showed much poise and skill in unnerving Chelsea in the opening half, overwhelming the hosts with crisp, incisive play throughout. Chelsea wavered time and again, and without the continued excellence of Courtois, would likely have trailed at the break. Ivanovic's never-ending gallivants forward were exploited with aplomb and the midfield axis of Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin was imperious in overrunning Chelsea's fragile state of play.
It felt like the home support was in for more of the same as the second half began, particularly when an errant throw-in from Ivanovic forced Matić into a tactical foul that very well could've led to a second yellow card and subsequent sending off. Instead, Matić somehow survived unscathed. Mourinho acted quickly, replacing him with Ramires, and the hosts suddenly looked competent. The Brazilian, surprisingly, brought much-needed discipline and energy to the field, which seemingly served as a catalyst for the rest of the side. Suddenly there was a nice rhythm to our play.
Chances, a host of them, followed. Southampton continued to threaten, a mesmerizing run from Tadić sounding alarms, but found itself pinned back as the match entered its final act. Hazard roared to life, causing a dizzying amount of problems; Willian's skewed shot from the edge of the area was nearly redirected in by Costa, only for the ball to loop upwards and onto the post; and then there was a fabulous double save from Fraser Forster in the 71st, the England goalkeeper first denying a point-blank header from Oscar and then the follow-up from Hazard.
Later, Forster was at his best again, getting a hand to César Azpilicueta's low drive toward the near post. Then, in the dying moments, Forster managed to sort out his feet with supreme swiftness to deny a laser-like first-timer from Remy. John Terry had a pair of opportunities to win it as the ball rebounded to him, but his first shot struck Ivanovic on its way toward goal and the second flew just wide. Mourinho could do nothing but throw up his hands in despair.
The sequence summed up the day. Some good, some bad - in the end, not quite good enough.