Pat Nevin: Wintry winning

Chelsea resolve was tested in the weekend cup-tie and it was the Blues who progressed, which impressed Pat Nevin, as he explains in this week’s column…

The most common word used about the weekend was ‘battling’. It certainly felt that way for all concerned as the freezing weather was only the first of the obstacles to be overcome. Drawing another Premier League side away in the FA Cup is always suboptimal. The fact that Leicester City were on pretty decent form obviously added to the hardship.

On top of that was the small matter of a gruelling game in the Nou Camp beforehand while Jamie Vardy and co. were on warm-weather training. Actually that isn’t always as helpful as it sounds. Yes, Claude Puel’s men got some decent training in but psychologically, coming back from sunbathing temperatures to face the mini beast from the east is a bit of a blow.

Back at the Nou Camp, Barcelona beat Chelsea 3-0 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate. Well when I say Barcelona, obviously I mean Lionel Messi beat us 4-1. Three goals and one delightful assist underlined what was obvious. Apart from one of best, if not the best player in history, there was nothing between the teams. Sometimes you just have to say ‘well done, you are actually quite good!’. The game however gave me hope for this weekend because of the problems Chelsea caused the Spaniards in their own stadium. Very few push them that far and create that many good situations in attacking areas, even if we didn’t convert any.

So it was back over land and sea and on to Leicester, where the Chelsea fans turned out in huge numbers and were in great voice. They had of course battled to get up the road through less than perfect weather conditions and they were clearly delighted by the graft of the team. The last thing anyone wanted was extra-time, which would clearly suit Leicester, but that is what we got and once more the Blues fought against the odds and won the day.

In the cup draw afterwards, Gianfranco and Petr paired us with the team with the lowest league position from the three clubs possible, although Mark Hughes did manage to rouse Southampton in the second half on Sunday. Our former lads also managed to get Chelsea the home dressing room at Wembley for the semi-final.

A place at Wembley was well-earned after the recent graft and when thinking about work-rate and endeavour, it is impossible to ignore two players. Firstly there is N’Golo Kante, who I am determined never to take for granted. There are very few players in football who are outstanding almost every single game of every single season, but I suspect he is near the very top of that very select group.

I am pretty much open-mouthed at various points in every game in which I watch him, and I still have no idea how he wins so many tackles he is second favourite for, or how he reads the game so incredibly well. I am beginning to think that like the elevators in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he might have an ability to see slightly into the future and know what is about to happen a few seconds before everyone else and as such, acts accordingly in nipping in to win the ball. He was brilliant again and this time he included an assist just to put the tin lid on it. That was a man-of-the-match performance with bells on.

I know it is early to consider it, but I will be amazed if he isn’t in everybody’s Premier League team of the year, and if the PFA Players’ top team doesn’t include him I will lose faith in the entire game.

The other man worth discussing when you talk about the heavy lifting must be Alvaro Morata. Leicester certainly sent out the muscle to let him know he is in a game and maybe they expected the oldest cliché in the book to work. Here was a classy Spanish player, playing in the FA Cup with added freezing weather. A few heavy tackles might just break his spirit.

Well if that was the plan, it backfired as Alvaro gave them a tough time and of course scored the opening goal. It is probably just what he needed now he seems back to full fitness, a team to rile him into a level of controlled passion. Most of us have no worries at all about his future at the club and his ability to score plenty of goals, but this mid-season quiet spell has doubtless been tough to cope with. 

A strong finish to the season from him with Olivier Giroud here too will make the chase for the FA Cup and a top-four position in the league much more likely to be successful. In actual fact, I wish the Spurs game was sooner than two weeks away as our form is pretty good. At least the three-game pivotal period didn’t start with two defeats which would have left us all with a rather dark cloud over us until the international week was concluded. As it is, having beaten Leicester, the outlook is sunnier. Well it will be when this interminable winter finally leaves us!