Newcastle United were cruising towards Premier League glory in early 1996. Kevin Keegan’s men had a mammoth 12-point lead over second-placed Manchester United. David Ginola was selling more dummies to defenders than his image was L'Oréal hair products; his sumptuously whipped crosses were a primary source of Les Ferdinand’s bounty of goals.
And if that made the Magpies overwhelming favourites, the purchase of Faustino Asprilla, the extravagantly gifted Colombian, shut the book on the title race – literally in the case of one bookmaker, who famously paid out on the trophy making its way to Tyneside. He was apparently listening to the tune of the Toon Army minority famed for removing black-and-white jerseys from their chunky upper torsos and bellowing out the club’s popular anthem, 'The Blaydon Racers', amid benumbing temperatures in that north-eastern winter. He should have been listening to the old adage that it’s not over till the fat lady sings.
That fat lady was caped in the red of Manchester United. For as Ginola and Newcastle lost their irresistible rhythm, another Gallic genius inspired what is, to date, the grandest title comeback in Premier League history. Eric Cantona, indeed, scored the only goal as the Red Devils won at St James’ Park, and he headlined – ably assisted by Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Co – an implausible run-in in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops seized 40 points from a possible 45 to finish four clear of the Magpies.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Newcastle. Now, though, somebody is itching to give Manchester United a taste of their own medicine. That somebody is a team who were in crisis just four months ago.
After winning their first five matches, scoring an average of 4.2 per game in the process, and keeping clean sheets in seven of their opening nine outings, Chelsea suffered a startling loss of form from November. A defeat at lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers in January, in fact, left them with a solitary win from nine games. The early-season leaders languished 15 points off the pace in fifth. Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba were enduring their worst spells in Chelsea colours, and Fernando Torres was in the midst of an alarming 903-minute run without a goal.
Ancelotti admitted Chelsea’s challenge was over; the consensus was that his time at Stamford Bridge would be as soon as their UEFA Champions League campaign ended. However, by the time their European run did end, courtesy of sickening solitary-goal defeats to Manchester United in both legs of their quarter-final, the west London outfit were revelling in a remarkable domestic renaissance. Indeed, having won 25 points from a possible 27, Chelsea will go into the penultimate round top of the Premier League on goal difference if they win at Old Trafford on Sunday (the sides are both on +38).
Captain John Terry said: “They were running away with it, but I always believed. The manager's done the right job, kept the players hungry, and all the supporters have been like that as well – they've never let us give up and think it was over. There's no bigger spur than going to Old Trafford and winning to put ourselves right in the frame for bringing the Premier League trophy back to the Bridge.”
Midfielder Michael Essien added: "It has been a sweet and sour season. To use a sandwich analogy: sweet bread at the top, sour filling, and more sweet bread at the bottom. We started the season extremely well, had a sour middle part and are now ending strongly. I can assure you we are up for it. The team is playing well and I have no doubt we will give it everything we have to beat Man United."
And though United have a formidable home record this term, the momentum in Chelsea’s favour. Essien, Lampard, Malouda and Drogba have rediscovered their touch; €25m defender David Luiz has reinvigorated the Blues’ backline; Salomon Kalou has struck some decisive goals; and Ancelotti has picked up back-to-back Manager of the Month awards.
“It is the best moment to play there, because now our condition is good and [we have] the momentum,” said Ancelotti. And if Chelsea go on to lift the trophy? “Football is strange. If it happens, it will be really strange."
Stranger, even, than when the Frenchman with the patented turned-up collar returned from an eight-month ban from football to kick-start the fairytale fightback of ’96 at St James' Park. Can Chelsea find a Cantona at the Theatre of Dreams on Sunday?