Pat Nevin: Right result, right method, breathless night
column Tue 14 Mar 2017
Chelsea legend Pat Nevin watched the Blues break down red-shirted resistance last night and he was impressed with the way the players went about it, as he writes in this week’s column…
Sometimes it is nice to be writing about football and not speaking about it. Today I am enjoying the vocal rest because like many others, my voice has just about gone. The atmosphere and the noise levels inside Stamford Bridge last night were right up there with the best we have had in the stadium. Considering I had been commentating at the Celtic v Rangers game the day before I reckon not just my vocal chords but all my senses need a rest too.
It was a passionate night in west London and feelings were running high right from the start. Actually it was all there from before the start, with the circumstances of a winner-takes-all, night-time cup-tie against Manchester United ramped up by the light show beforehand, of which there is a video below, and the small matter of Jose returning.
It was never going to be a dull evening. United fans were there in large numbers and their constant singing added to the feeling that this was a very special occasion. With the players pumped up it was breathless, and even though headlines have revolved around the sending off and the confrontations between the managers, do not forget this was an exceptional game of football.
Chelsea were once again at or close to their very best for most of the game against what was effectively a 6-2-2 system, then a 6-2-1 when Herrera got his marching orders. At that point it was clear that United were not going to get much of the ball or indeed come out a great deal, but there is an art to playing against 10, whatever their formation is. First you keep the ball and make them chase until they tire and gaps begin to open up, as they always will. According to Opta, Chelsea had 82 per cent of the possession in the second half, astonishing even with an extra man. The best way to break them down is to pass it very quickly, side to side and keeping the team stretched. This stresses their concentration and fitness levels. In this respect it was a masterclass from the Blues and due respect to United for keeping it down to 1-0 in the end.
For all that Rashford had that one chance in the second half, Diego could easily have had a hat-trick. De Gea made superb saves, particularly the one from Gary Cahill, and as the game neared the end there were two or three lightning, pitch-length breaks from Chelsea that could have, and maybe should have, killed the game off. Had it been 3-0 or 4-0 as it easily could have been, then the post-match narrative might have been different, but then it might not. There were always going to be comments about the relationship between Jose and Antonio and Jose with the Chelsea fans.
We will all have nuanced feelings about last night but it probably all comes down to the extreme passions of the former relationship now divorced. Chelsea fans loved Jose for what he did at the club, but like any intense relationship after a break up it can get rather fractious. All the classic signs were there; blame, anger, bringing up things from the past that really don’t need saying. There is also the fact that there are new relationships involved. We have Antonio and he has Manchester United and maybe that is the crux of it for many.
When Jose says anything negative, even if it is coded, about Antonio Conte then Chelsea fans are simply not going to accept it. Mutual if distant respect would be fine but anything else is going to grate. Jose summed it up in an off-the-cuff remark in the press conference. He said, ‘I am a professional and Manchester United is now my team.’ In reality everything else is bluster, right now he has to do what he feels is best for his club and his relationship with them.
So as with all break ups that turn a little sour the only thing that will heal is the passing of time. Meanwhile there will be lots of sport to be had in the media and the press conferences over the next few years.
Back on the pitch, there were moments that drew the breath throughout. I will be surprised if we see a better dummy this season than the one Eden Hazard sold to Chris Smalling after 15 minutes. I think it was Chris, but it was hard to be sure as he was busy off buying a ticket to get back in after Eden broke away and shot. There were many slick, sharp passing movements and a dynamism throughout the entire team and if you use the word dynamism, I believe you are legally obliged to say the name N’Golo Kante in the same sentence.
If he actually starts regularly scoring goals like the one he smashed in to win this tie, then it is just bordering on unfair on the rest of the teams. Once again he was exceptional, world class and no one deserved the goal more than him.
He knows how to tackle better than anyone else and maybe that was one area where United fell down. They were committed and passionate to be sure, but challenges on Eden Hazard in the first half in particular were deeply unimpressive. I spent much of my career on the end of crunching tackles and clear fouls aimed at intimidating me and slowing me down.
Unless I actually got injured it always had the opposite effect and just fired me up to get more of the ball, beat more of them and create more chances. In the midst of it, I always knew when opposition were taking it in turns to have a kick. Eden would have been acutely aware last night and what was heartening is the referee was clued in too, which he should have been as a third of all the fouls in the entire game were on Eden Hazard.
When the sending off came there was fury as it was a long way from the worst offence, but the man in the middle had warned the United players that he knew what was going on.
Many disagreed but I was 100 per cent behind the referee at that moment.
The score was right, the game was exciting and surely there can’t be as good an atmosphere in the next round. Actually it’s Spurs at Wembley, so scratch that. This is turning into a memorable season with many special games and there are a few more to come because the team is to my mind actually improving during the run-in.