Chelsea saw their Premier League title dream die in a 0-0 draw with Norwich City that may have represented a curtain call for three of the club's greatest players.
Following the final whistle of Sunday's game -- Chelsea's last home fixture of the campaign -- Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry took part in a 'lap of appreciation' at Stamford Bridge with their team-mates. All three players will be out of contract at the end of the season and there was a hint of poignancy in their waves to the crowd, while they also posed for photographs together.
The trio became Chelsea stalwarts during manager Jose Mourinho's first stint in charge, and the Portuguese responded evasively when asked if they had played their last home games for the club. "They are with the club on their future," he said.
"Now is the time to wait a little bit. The summer is a long summer, for us. For the media with the World Cup, it's a different story. For the players in the World Cup, it's a different story. But for the club it's a long time, to be calm and sit and discuss and analyze the options and the market and the possibilities."
Lampard, 35, is Chelsea's all-time leading scorer and Terry, 33, is the club's most decorated captain, while 33-year-old Cole was first-choice left-back until losing his place to Cesar Azpilicueta this season. The draw against third-bottom Norwich secured Chelsea's place in the group phase of next season's Champions League, but left their title challenge hanging by the most slender of threads.
They will be eliminated from the title race if either Manchester City or Liverpool win one of their two remaining games, which could come as early as Monday, when Liverpool visit Crystal Palace. Chelsea dominated the game against Norwich, with Andre Schurrle and David Luiz both striking the woodwork, while Eden Hazard had a strong penalty claim turned down after Ryan Bennett took a wild swipe at him.
On Hazard's penalty appeal, Mourinho said that he "went back to the dug-out laughing" after quickly watching footage of the incident in his office inside the tunnel. Asked why he had laughed, he replied: "Because I can't cry."
Mourinho has repeatedly complained about the lack of proven goal-scorers in his squad and he said that Sunday's game only served to emphasize Chelsea's need for a new striker. "Our strikers are good strikers, there's no doubt about that, but they're players with specific qualities," he said.
"They're not the kind of players who, in five square meters with three or four players around them, can dribble one, see the space, make a shot."
Mourinho had seen his side eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by Atletico Madrid four days earlier, but he said that Chelsea could be satisfied with their efforts this season. Alluding to his belief that Chelsea have been penalized by disadvantageous officiating, he said: "Without the 'festivals' it would have been a better season.
"But it's a very dangerous league and we managed always to be there. From day one till the end, we were always there. In the end we didn't manage to finish and win it, but we were always around. And in the Champions League, the same. We managed to go to the second leg of the semi-final, so I think for the group we have and for the potential we have, we did OK."
Norwich interim manager Neil Adams felt that his side were denied a "stonewall" penalty in the first half after Terry felled Martin Olsson as he prodded a shot towards Chelsea's goal. The point kept Norwich safe, but they will effectively be relegated on Wednesday if fourth-bottom Sunderland avoid defeat at home to fifth-bottom West Bromwich Albion.
"We need results. We need a bit of luck," Adams said. "Hopefully if it goes our way, we have to make sure Sunday's game (at home to Arsenal) is a fantastic occasion."