Pat Nevin: Turnaround time
column Tue 17 Apr 2018
After a week of games which weren’t over until they were over, columnist Pat Nevin looks at influential factors and ahead to this week’s two games to come…
So who was it who flicked the switch at the weekend? After a soporific performance for the first hour on a warm, spring day out at the South Coast, suddenly there was an injection of urgency. It is hard to know why it was so sleepy to start with but when it changed it was like watching a different sport.
So why did it suddenly all change? The obvious answer is of course the substitutions made by Antonio Conte after we went 2-0 down and that was certainly the major part of it. Olivier Giroud was strong, robust and fired up which seemed to immediately affect everyone else in blue. His near-post header was as classic a Giroud goal as you will ever see. I have said it many times before, even back when he was at Arsenal, he is the best in the business at scoring from in front of the near post.
They always say that strikers should get themselves in between the posts when the crosses come in, but for him the two or three yards in front of that area is perfect because of that ability to flick or redirect it behind his position at an angle, with pace and with plenty of accuracy towards the goal.
To say it was all down to that substitution is however, to my mind, a little bit harsh on Alvaro Morata. For the vast majority of the match he battled manfully, generally against three centre-backs on his own, with very little help or protection. Give Southampton their due, Maya Yoshida, Wesley Hoedt and new man Jan Bednarek took it in turns to rough up Alvaro and by the hour mark he was getting seriously frustrated and more than a little tetchy. Olivier was indeed stronger when he came on but by then the defenders’ rough-house treatment was being dialled back. The referee had started throwing yellows about like business cards from a desperate used car salesman, and Olivier took advantage of that. The defenders tired a bit too and of course that big dollop of nerves which coursed through those in red and white became a crucial factor as the game wore on.
Another reason why I reckon the Blues went through the gears was that a few of those tough challenges had made the lads angry. I do not entirely blame the home side for that to be frank, they are in grave danger of the drop and they must try everything to save themselves. No fan wants to see his or her team relegated with a whimper. Chelsea started giving as good as they were getting and it led to a more spirited display. Old school but effective.
So suddenly the points were in the bag and the large travelling Chelsea support were now having a delightful day out in the sunshine. There was also just the odd glance at the league table and specifically the top four. Yes, it is highly unlikely but there is no reason why we should give Spurs, and more specifically, Liverpool, a free pass into the Champions League next season. With Spurs dropping three points and Liverpool, who we have a game in hand over, still to come to the Bridge, to use the football vernacular, we have to keep them honest.
If it is honesty you are seeking in football you look no further than Thursday evening and our opponents Burnley. They will throw everything at Chelsea considering they still have Arsenal in their sights. I was at the Gunners game Sunday and going by that performance it is a definite possibility that Sean Dyche’s team could embarrass Arsenal by overtaking them in the run in.
Being at Southampton on Saturday and Newcastle on Sunday I wondered, not for the first time, if my employers are trying to wind me up. A two-day, 850-mile round trip via my home in Scotland was, to be fair, mad but also lots of fun and I am certainly not complaining. Actually it could have been a longer trek, as I was supposed to be in Madrid for the Real v Juventus second leg earlier in the week. It was decided not to send me however, in that it was certain to be too boring because the tie was basically over at 0-3 from the first leg! Nobody appeared to have given Juventus that information.
It was yet another one of those comebacks that made it such a wild week in football. Barcelona lost a three-goal advantage, there were Europa League games that were just as topsy-turvy and of course Chelsea, with that rapid-fire fightback along with Newcastle also coming from 1-0 down, all made me wonder what was going on?
It may just be an outlier of a week, but at the end of a season when some players are tired and others are being rested, when some minds are elsewhere focusing on the latter stages of other competitions and some others are protecting themselves with the thought of the upcoming World Cup and the fear of injury, then it maybe isn’t quite as strange a phenomenon as it looks at first glance. You will get some people taking their proverbial eyes off the ball.
Back to basics and Burnley have been a tough nut to crack for everyone this season and I have nothing but admiration for their honest endeavour and their evermore positive outlook towards winning each game. It does not seem to matter who they play against, they always have the same work ethic. I doubt if there will be a single Burnley player on the pitch on Thursday night whose mind is on anything other than giving everything they have in that particular game. So it will not be easy; in fact it could be among the toughest away games of the season.
The real decisions regarding team selection will all be from Antonio Conte. With three games in eight days and some signs of a dip intensity at Southampton in the first half from the Blues, does he rest important players before the big semi-final at the weekend? I wouldn’t be surprised if he does rotate a bit more than usual because the FA Cup is the last chance of glory this season and just as pertinently, with Arsenal slipping up at Newcastle, we are suddenly afforded a little more wriggle room in the league. That is of course if he is interested in looking down the league instead of up at the moment.
I’ll be honest right here, though I will be travelling to the Burnley game purely as a fan this time and not for work, I know which of the two coming games I am more keen to win. I want the silverware and the fact that Southampton caved in on Saturday means they have an extra psychological burden to overcome when Sunday comes. What’s more, they might actually be looking elsewhere themselves. Given a choice of reaching the FA Cup final or staying in the league, the vast majority of modern players would choose the latter. I have a suspicion that their manager however might be slightly more conflicted than his players, but can he change their minds?