Pat Nevin: The space invaders
column Tue 2 May 2017
Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin gives his view on how the team overcame the challenges on Sunday and how it is well-set for the ones to come…
The celebrations at the end of the match at Goodison Park said it all. Antonio and the team weren’t celebrating winning the league but without doubt they fully understood the significance of those three points won in very difficult circumstances.
With nothing to lose, Everton could afford to have a go at Chelsea on their home ground with the added confidence they were on a fine run of form but much of their game was built on stopping Chelsea. Maybe it was no surprise in that the 5-0 at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season was bordering on a humiliation, and they certainly didn’t want that to happen again in front of their own fans. Even so a little more derring-do is always what I associate with my time at Everton.
It was not to be and it seemed to revolve around Diego Costa and specifically Eden Hazard being stopped by whatever means possible. Diego is used to it, strikers are to some extent man-to-man marked every single week. Most centre-backs are really only interested in shadowing strikers with a vague inclination to take a wider part in the game now and again. Diego knows this and lives with this.
For Eden Hazard, he is certainly no stranger to this sort of marking, but since Ander Herrera’s much-vaunted performance against our Belgian star at Old Trafford, I have known this is going to become a more common occurrence for him. On Sunday it was Idrissa Gueye who was tasked with ignoring anything else that was going on in and around Goodison Park for 90 minutes. He just had to stick closer to Eden than Mr Collins to Elizabeth Bennett at the Netherfield Ball. (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, trust me it works).
On the positive side, it allowed a bit more space near the end for Pedro to jink into and smash an unstoppable shot into the top corner past Maarten Stekelenberg. After that it was never in doubt, Everton had to open up and the gaps were certain to appear for everyone in black when the damn had been breached. Willian and Cesc gleefully crowned the display after Gary Cahill had relieved the residual pressure with yet another important goal. 3-0 might look easy in the next day’s newspapers and even on the highlights shows, but it certainly wasn’t, hence the celebrations after the game.
Those celebrations were as much to do with what has been a phenomenal week of football for the club, as that one game on Merseyside. The semi-final sting against Spurs, a spirited Southampton seen off at Stamford Bridge and a dogged Everton now whimpering after an 0-8 aggregate score in the league this season. Chelsea have scored 11 goals in the past eight days, so any whispers of a slump have been well and truly crushed for the moment. The most crushing thing for the opponents is that they haven’t found an answer to Chelsea and specifically Antonio’s tactical acumen.
After Man United and Jose’s elaborate plan it was generally thought, stop Eden and you might just stop Chelsea. In the last week however Eden was rested for part of the game v Spurs and we still won. He still scored when he came on. Against Southampton he played as an auxiliary striker with Diego Costa and they were dynamite together. Everton tried the shadowplay on Eden, but it just left room for others. It is like putting your finger in a hole in the proverbial dyke, the pressure will just be released somewhere else. You ignore Willian, Cesc, Pedro et al at your peril.
Eden will still probably be a little frustrated at times, but he is learning quickly that you just take your marker to where he doesn’t want to be. You also ensure he is booked early on if you can, so if you can get fouled at pace if possible at the start, as I mentioned just a few weeks ago, it makes things easier. When the marker is booked he can’t get as close, can’t hold your shirt or block to the same level. At the game it was clear that Eden was probably fouled up to 50 times, no exaggeration I promise you, but because he was being held or blocked when the ball was 60 or 70 yards away, the officials (and the TV cameras) never caught it. He must constantly tell the referee and crucially the assistant referees to be aware of this. When they are alerted to it, they do sometimes act on it.
It matters little as the job was done and the next one looms on the horizon, though it is a fairly distant horizon. We are usually bombarded with games at this time of the season, but with no European involvement for a year we can enjoy the privilege of rest right now. Monday night seems a long time a way before Middlesbrough rock up at Stamford Bridge, but after a very hectic week this is no bad thing. When David Luiz was limping off at Goodison I was already thinking, ‘Eight days is a long time to recover so he will hopefully make it,’ though it isn’t too much of a panic to be honest.
Once again two people in my eye line at Goodison tempered any fear. As Nathan Ake jogged on I thought, that is fine, he will cope well with Romelu Lukaku and he did with the help of Dave and Gary. Also in me eyeline in the press box was JT wandering off after the third goal with a huge smile on his face. He was grinning at the win, but he wouldn’t be a real pro if he wasn’t already thinking, ‘David is injured so I might get a little more Chelsea game time before the inevitable tearjerker on the last day of the season.’
So with five games left there are only two rivals, Spurs in the League and Arsenal in the FA Cup. The expected northern revival looks to be behind schedule but I am not writing it off for next season whether it is Man City, Man United or Liverpool who arrive at the top table. In the meantime, it is all about the capital fare and the big three here. Let’s be honest, a double at any time is fantastic but one which would see off our two big local rivals would have a certain delicious flavour, one savoured for a rather long time in SW6 I suspect.