Pat Nevin: It’s back!

With a second competition added to the season tonight, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin has a big appetite for European football, as he describes in this week’s column…

I caught a view of the league table on Saturday evening and there were Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea bunched tightly together at the top. Liverpool and Spurs were not far behind and apart from Huddersfield, it looked as if the top of the Premier League had taken on a familiar shape already.

There will be ups and downs but I will not be surprised if the top four or five teams make an early break this season, and are realistically out of sight within the next four or five games.

That isn’t to say the rest can’t give the odd bloody nose to the big boys but the way the likes of City and United have strengthened, they do not look like they will be knocked out by the odd blow here or there. Chelsea’s strengthening became more obvious against Leicester with three of the new boys starting for the team that won the league last season. It was always going to be a tricky one at the weekend as Leicester have certainly rediscovered some of their mojo, even if it has not led to a decent points haul so far. Others will falter at the King Power, just as Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid couldn’t win there last season. Three points and an assured performance on Saturday were more impressive than we got credit for.

It brings us to tonight’s Champions League return and yes, we have been missing these games rather a lot. Like a party we were not invited to, we had to watch from a distance last season and it wasn’t pleasant.

Actually the group stage was the hardest for me, and I suspect many Chelsea fans, to bear. The fact that it was such an unusual situation for the club made it feel confusing at first but I think in the end it underlined that Champions League nights should never be taken for granted. The vast majority of club sides around the continent would dream of getting there just once for the ride.

Our opponents Qarabag, this being their first time at this stage, will be very excited but they should under no circumstances be underestimated. I watched them a while back in qualifiers against Celtic and they certainly have some talent, a very pleasing-on-the-eye style of play and a particularly impressive spirit to boot. They have fought through six games already to get this far and although they are comparative minnows, a quick look at our history shows there was the odd banana skin not avoided in the past, with Basel standing out. Drawn in a very strong group this time round, a six-point haul is an absolute requirement against the Azerbaijani outfit.

There is no point in the manager thinking ahead to Roma and Atletico Madrid right now as a less than perfect start to the campaign would change his thinking on those games. In some Champions League groups you can hope to have qualification done and dusted before the final game, to allow you to rest players but that maybe unlikely this time. One way or another the pressure, the tension and the excitement will be back with a little added flavour. simply because we have been starved of it for a year.

I did miss it in the group stages last season but like many Blues, the march to the Premier League title and that incredible run the team went on did take my mind off everything happening across the channel by the time the Champions League knockout stage got going. In fact, my biggest memory of last season’s Champions League was being at the Bayern Munich 5 Arsenal 0 game and trying very hard not to go all teenager-ish and saying OMG time and again. There was no gloating on my part, just sympathy to be absolutely honest. Arsenal’s roller coaster season went on and the FA Cup final underlined we are not the only club to have lurched in our fortunes over the past few years.

The Gooners will be ready and waiting by the weekend and this week underlines the scale of Antonio Conte’s job this month. There are seven games in September including Arsenal, Man City, Atletico Madrid and Stoke away, which is never easy, and all bookended by international weeks for the players. Now that is a hectic schedule! Personally I hope tonight will have another appearance by Eden Hazard as well as Gary Cahill, because every single player will be needed and by the end of the month, Eden in particular could be back to his very best thank goodness. 

Maybe most importantly then, I would like to see this game tonight wrapped up early if possible with a goal or two in the first half. As I mentioned, I expect this group to go to the wire so any opportunity to cruise just a little, even if it is only for 45 minutes or half an hour, could be vital in the long run. The league position is fine but considering the transfer window and the weird first game against Burnley, in an odd way it seems like the real meat of the season starts here. Fortunately the team looks hungry enough to do well.

- Pat Nevin is part of Chelsea TV's Matchnight Live team this evening