April was where talk of title challenges and relegation began to gain momentum, and there was plenty of chatter about the latter at St James’ Park. Newcastle United had occupied the back pages at the beginning of the month, as they announced the shock appointment of Messiah #4685 Alan Shearer as their new manager.
He was employed to save his home-town club from their seemingly inevitable relegation, but he kicked-off his reign as Newcastle boss with a defeat against Chelsea. Frank Lampard bagged an opener before setting up a now fully-rejuvenated Florent Malouda who converted a second.
It was the perfect warm-up for a Champions League game at Anfield a few days later. Again, the Blues were victorious. With José Bosingwa out of action, perennial unused substitute Branislav Ivanovic took his place at right-back and wrote himself into Chelsea folklore over the 90 minutes.
Although Fernando Torres opened the scoring, a shock Ivanovic brace – with both goals coming from powerful headers at set-pieces – followed by a close range Didier Drogba finish saw Chelsea win 3-1 at Anfield, sending their fans into delirium and putting the Blues firmly in the driving seat ahead of the Stamford Bridge second-leg.
For Liverpool to go through, they would need to win by three clear goals, but with Chelsea’s imperious defence it seemed entirely unlikely that this could happen, even if John Terry did pick up a booking at Anfield which would see him miss the reverse fixture.
It was a huge surprise when Bolton then came to the Bridge and managed to score three goals against the Blues supposedly imperious defence. Although Chelsea were at a time 4-0 up, some shambolic defending coupled with some Bolton roughhousing saw the Trotters score three times inside eight minutes to set up a nervy finish.
Chelsea held on though, and there was an even nervier game three days later against Liverpool. Sensing the Blues shaky backline, Rafa Benitez’s side took the game to Chelsea, going 2-0 up from set-pieces inside half an hour. It was horrible.
What was meant to be a comfortable task for Chelsea had been made extremely difficult, but the Blues were able to hold on until after the half-time break, when they hit back with some goals of their own.
Drogba, Alex and Lampard put Chelsea ahead on the night with three efforts in the second-half, but unbelievably, Liverpool hit back again. Lucas and Dirk Kuyt scored in the 81st and 82 minute respectively to put Liverpool 4-3 up and one more away goal away from progressing, but right at the death, Lampard scored again to settle the nerves and settle the tie. At the final whistle, thousands of Chelsea fans worldwide were able to breathe out again.
A less dramatic game was played out at Wembley the weekend after, with Guus Hiddink’s side overturning an early Theo Walcott goal to edge past Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final with Malouda and Drogba exposing stand-in ‘keeper Lukas Fabianski’s frailties to help the Blues to a 2-1 win.
A break from cup competition followed, with a couple of dull Premier League games against Everton (0-0) and West Ham (a 1-0 win) providing a gentle prelude to a Champions League clash against old enemies (or should that be new enemies?) Barcelona, who had established themselves as the best attacking side in Europe over the course of the season.
Although he would pick up some criticism for the way Chelsea were set up on the night, Hiddink was able to lead the Blues to a 0-0 draw in the Nou Camp as Barca struggled to find a way past a resolute Chelsea defence, minus the suspended Ashley Cole. Bosingwa filled in at left-back and superbly marshalled the mercurial Lionel Messi.
For all their attacking prowess, Chelsea absorbed and battled, which seemed to suggest the tie was swinging in the Blues favour. Little did we know, but May would prove us wrong.