Pat Nevin: Tough and tougher
column Tue 21 Mar 2017
How hard will it be for Chelsea to reach the points target needed and how hard for anyone trying to catch us? Columnist Pat Nevin asks himself these questions as he writes this week’s words…
There are a lot of clichés going around football at the moment, but then that always tends to be the case in sport. Apparently Chelsea can only ‘throw it away’ if they do not win the league from here.
Personally, I do not see it that way and for good reason. Antonio has suggested a haul of 21 points is needed, that is the number because as we have all figured out already, it is arithmetically how many we need at the moment. So what if Chelsea won six, had two draws and lost a couple from here on in, that would be not bad form? If in the mean time Spurs won all 10 of their matches to clinch it, would that be throwing the title away or fine form from Spurs?
Granted that all looks pretty unlikely, particularly as Spurs have some pretty tough fixtures coming up and six of those are away from home. Spurs have won four league games away from White Hart Lane this season, so I am willing to accept it is a rather tall order for them.
One of the other clichés that has grown around north London is that Arsenal are a bit soft and they crumble when they get to the tougher games. Whether there might just be something in that or not, let’s be honest, are Arsenal going on a 10-game winning run right now?
Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool can theoretically catch the Blues but it all seems to be falling into place for us, I mean did any of us want anything other than a draw between Man City and Liverpool at the weekend?
Also, going back to Spurs, you might have noticed in the press that Harry Kane is injured (it got so little coverage you might have missed it) but yet again that is something that has fallen into Chelsea’s hands at just the right time.
One of the biggest clichés in the game is that you do not win titles without a rock-solid defence. That of course makes you immediately consider Man City’s back line and Pep’s ultra-positive attack-minded play. Personally I love it. In reality though, unless you are as good as Barcelona at their very best then many would say defensive consideration is probably a good idea in the end if you want to win the big prizes.
Which brings us back to why everyone thinks Chelsea are unlikely to fold - the defence is infuriatingly solid if you are trying to break them down. Collapses tend to happen to sides that are a bit flaky, that play on the edge and are completely different one week to the next in style and in quality. The standard from Chelsea, primarily at the back and in defensive midfield, has remained granite-like since the infamous Emirates first half.
This weekend was interesting for a number of reasons. Once more Chelsea were well on top away from home but Antonio really made a play for the three points when many would have settled for one. Stoke’s is the ground and team that are held to be the toughest, physically at least, in the league, but chasing three points from within an ordered structure was still considered worth it.
There was a level of risk, but it was limited and calculated. Bringing on the creativity of Cesc and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Victor Moses and Nemanja Matic was definitely positive, but the back line was still steady and the little move from three to four at the back was pretty seamless.
There was something else worth considering; it was one centre-back to another for the winning goal so the back line got the headlines for once. Getting the winning goal against Stoke City from a corner probably deserves an extra point. Then again Gary Cahill has already scored from a header against them this season, so maybe he just knows something everyone else doesn’t.
So the clichéd question of whether you have the gumption to go to Stoke and battle it out has been answered and when placed beside the similar win against West Ham, it just underlines that this Chelsea side has the resilience, the personality and the fighting spirit to see out these last 10 games. It isn’t over yet and like Antonio and the team I will not call it until it is officially ours, but if I was a fan, player or manager of another club I would be losing heart right now.
Even that is an aid to our campaign because other teams battling for top-four places have to consider whether they can really justify chasing Chelsea or should they be consolidating for Champions League football next season. Late in an away game at a tough ground with a point in the bag, would all the teams below us really feel it is sensible to charge forward, especially if they have less dependable defences than ours?
With the international week upon us, all the other managers will have time to consider all the possibilities, the myriad different challenges they have and all the while Antonio needs to think of only one big idea. Keep the pressure on, keep winning, don’t overcomplicate things, don’t change it too much and see how the rest cope with that pressure. It will not be easy, but it is much harder for everyone else.