Pat Nevin: The game changers
column Tue 31 Jan 2017
Continuing to get the basics right and strength on the bench could be the deciding factors in tonight’s big match reckons Chelsea legend Pat Nevin…
With FA Cup slip-ups aplenty in this round, the sure-footed win against Brentford was a relief to everyone. Too many personnel changes can lead to problems as Liverpool discovered at the weekend, but the Blues seemed hardly to notice the manager’s rotations. In fact it all seemed, well, seamless to be honest and that isn’t always easy to pull off. I was at Old Trafford on Sunday, keeping an eye on Manchester United and their nine changes took nearly 45 minutes to finally get into the groove against Wigan, so our weekend’s work was as satisfactory as anyone’s.
So without ‘dissin’ the FA Cup, let’s be honest, it was the least anticipated game by some distance of the three that will be played in this seven-day period by Chelsea. Tonight it is Liverpool in a game that is do or die for their season in terms of silverware. They have crashed out of two trophies this week, both unexpectedly, and their league form has faltered too. If Chelsea manage to get three points up at Anfield then the 13-point gap would effectively knock them out of every domestic trophy in six short days.
The pressure is further piled on Jurgen Klopp and his players by the games coming up in the next month, with Spurs, Arsenal and Man City being faced in three of the next six, none which they can afford to lose. Small wonder they are trying everything short of the Star Trek Enterprises ‘Energizer’ machine to get Sadio Mane back from Africa as quickly as possible. What this tells us is Liverpool will give everything they have in this one tonight, and so will their manager and their crowd in the final shot at glory.
I feel that even a draw would be an awful result for the Reds and a fairly good one for the Blues, so expect the usual all-action, 100 mph, high-tempo, closing down all over the field style at the start from Liverpool. As such there may be a period of pressure to cope with early on, but if that storm can be weathered then the jitters and the tiredness might start to have an effect on the home side eventually. Oddly enough, this is one night were I would dearly like to win the toss before the game. If I was skipper, then I would immediately change round and ensure Liverpool are attacking The Kop in the first half not the second. The Kop gives them a lift when they tire, and they are tiring badly in most games just now because of the tempo they play at every week, and if this late lift could be nullified to some extent it could make a significant difference.
Having said all that, it is not nearly as important as the basics in the game tonight. Good organisation, a real hunger to win, enough skill and an ability to ‘turn up’ for the big games is what is needed. Chelsea have shown all of those traits for months now, but this is a pivotal moment in the season, or more precisely a pivotal week. Right now two draws would constitute better results for us than our opponents, so it is not only Liverpool who have to come out to play, but Arsenal have to come to the Bridge at the weekend and have a real go as well.
Antonio will once again get the side prepared and I suspect he will have known what his team for tonight was going to be even before the Brentford match. A few players didn’t do their causes any harm in the cup tie, but it is a big call to radically or even slightly change the side that has put together the current exceptional run of games, with only that annoying Spurs blip in the middle of course. Nathan Ake wouldn’t weaken the side, Ruben Loftus Cheek continues to show signs that he could be huge for the club. Cesc is pure class as ever, and who will get the nod between Willian or Pedro, as they both look on fire at the moment. The joy is that not only are there options, but there are plenty of players that can materially change the game from the bench.
Right now that has been one of the problems for tonight’s opponents. Their bench has looked rather callow at times lately and that is not perfect when you get towards the business end of the season. In fact, that is one of the main reasons for their recent cup defeats. If. However, they do manage to get Sturridge, Mane, Coutinho and Firmino fully fit, on their best form and working together then you have to take them seriously as contenders. The problem is that when they are not 100 per cent, the back-up is good but it is not great and in this league you have to be very special in every area to win it, including the bench.
So settle down for the ride, I’ll be on Chelsea TV tonight and on Saturday sharing it with everyone and trying manfully to keep calm, and keeping Jason calm too!
Actually there is no chance of that happening to be fair. In the midst of it all there has been the draw for the FA Cup against Wolves, another Championship side but unlike the Brentford tie away from home, and the transfer window will doubtless have the odd story or two thrown up. The thing is that from Chelsea’s point of view, I really am not convinced there is any great need to break the bank during this window or indeed have a word with the bank manager at all. How many teams are actually pretty happy with their squads right now? It tells you how good a place the club is in right at this moment, let’s hope we feel the same by Saturday night.