Pat Nevin: Knowing the score

There is still plenty of life left in the FA Cup reckons Pat Nevin, so how does it fit into a successful campaign? It’s up for discussion in this week’s column…

 

There has been much debate about the importance and even the validity of the FA Cup over the past couple of seasons. Clearly, whether you like it or not, the Premier League and the Champions League take preference for the top clubs, but that isn’t to say it is totally disrespected. It is probably better to look at it as two separate entities - everything before the quarter-finals and then the business end afterwards. If you can navigate through the early rounds without exhausting your squad, when Wembley looms on the horizon, it is time to get serious.

For the lower league and indeed non-league clubs it is a different deal, but even the Lincoln City manager underlined that a quarter final tie away to Arsenal is not as important as winning their league title and getting back into the real Football League again. It is tough to square that pragmatism to the scenes I witnessed first-hand at Turf moor on Saturday. Doing the BBC radio commentary with my old friend John Murray and watching the celebrations as the last minute Lincoln winner knocked out their Premier League opponents was spine-tingling stuff.

So from one position the magic of the Cup, the sentiment and the glory is all there but the pragmatism is as likely from Lincoln boss Danny Cowley as it is from Antonio Conte.

The thing to always remember is that a season is about a number of competitions if you are a football club and you have to manage them all in the best way you can. Go full blast at every competition and we have all witnessed teams blowing up and failing from tiredness and injury at the end. From Chelsea’s point of view, the weekend was a perfect opportunity to give some of the players that haven’t been starting regularly some invaluable game time. So JT, Nathan Ake and Kurt Zouma all got the shout along with Asmir Begovic at the back and because it was still a team picked to win it had all sorts of other benefits as well.

Squad morale is helped by others getting a chance, but the run keeps going and the manager knows just who is capable of fitting in to the Premier League side when needed. By the looks of it most of them would slot in pretty effortlessly. The front line was ultra-positive even if Pedro was ostensibly playing in a deeper starting position than is considered his normal one. It didn’t seem to hamper him when he popped up to score the opener of course. Diego Costa back on the score sheet after a short gap is also helpful but even the players that were ‘rested’ can look upon the positives.

Clearly David Luiz needed a real rest to allow his knee to recover even further and let’s hope that will clear up with the current break he has been able to have. Marcus Alonso who has been running himself into the ground probably needed a little breather, even if there were no outward signs that he was wilting. The question will obviously come up in the next round when Jose and his team turn up at Stamford Bridge, do you stick with the same policy or do you bring back what is currently considered to be the ‘A’ team?

Unfair though it may seem, I genuinely have no complaints about one set of players getting you part of the way and some others finishing off the job in a cup run. Individuals may understandably feel a little put out, but a club is there to win and if a trophy is realistically up for grabs then sentiment falls by the wayside. It is harsh, but the elite sportsmen and sports coaches generally all know the score on these occasions.

Just last week I was over in Munich for the Arsenal game and was amazed that Arsene Wenger decided to allow Ospina to continue in goal, as he has all along in the Champions League, instead of Petr Cech. Now David Ospina is a fine keeper but Cech is better, has pretty good history in the Champions League and a specifically good experience in the Allianz Arena against Bayern Munich! In the end Arsenal were hammered and the keeper wasn’t in the top 10 problems on the night for the Gunners, but had he cost them the tie, the season or possibly the manager his job, would it really have been worth it just to be nice?

Sentimentality has its place in football, but in the bigger scheme of things whether it is the FA Cup, the Premier League or the Champions League the sentiment is generally reserved for winners when you get to the top level. Apart from anything else players don’t usually want to get played for sentimental reasons, they want to be chosen because they are the best for the job at that moment.

Right now Antonio Conte will do exactly what is needed to succeed and it is a very strong position we find ourselves in. The decisions are all working out very well indeed. In actual fact I have the good fortune to be carrying out an extended interview with the manager on Thursday at the Chelsea Pitch Owners’ dinner at Stamford Bridge. So what questions should I ask him? Well you could send me some ideas and if I choose your question I will put the answer in next week’s column, hopefully following another win against an admittedly resurgent Swansea. The address by the way is still pat.nevin@chelseafc.com

-          A few places still remain at the event. Click on CPO Antonio Conte Evening for more details