Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Is the story of a new legend already being written? It is a question considered by supporter Giles Smith as he pens this week’s Champions League-focused column…


So now we know how you do it. Now we know how you arrive at a club at the end of the summer transfer window and have the entire crowd singing your name within half an hour of the start of your home debut, fewer than two weeks later.

And it’s pretty simple, as it turns out. All you have to do, with about 29 minutes played, is receive the ball from your goalkeeper, on the right wing, not far in advance of the edge of your own penalty area. Then, accelerating swiftly to something approaching greyhound pace, you have to set off up that wing, in a straight line, keeping tight to the touchline.

Now, somewhere around the half-way mark, you’re going to have to lose two opponents who have arrived to try and take the ball off you, and possibly dump you over the advertising hoardings in the process, if that’s what it takes. But that’s all right because all you’ll need to do is push the ball on and run straight through them, for all the world as if they were formed from wet newspaper.

Then, when you’ve travelled practically the length of the pitch – or, at any rate, are roughly the same distance from the opponents’ penalty area as you were from your own area when you first received the ball – you’ve simply got to look up and use your right foot to release a thunderous shot that travels like a meteor in a cartoon and, trailing smoke, flies into the top of the goal over a flapping and baffled keeper.

And okay, people afterwards (including yourself, in fact) are going to say that it was a cross rather than a shot, in actual fact. But that’s a pedantic and entirely unnecessary discussion to be having, in the circumstances. Because whatever it was when it started, and whatever the exact intentions may have been when the ball left the boot, it was definitely a shot by the time it hit the back of the net. Ask the goalkeeper.

TOP 5: Did he mean it? goals

Some goal, then. And small wonder that, come half-time, the big screens could only marvel at it again and again, from all available camera angles, for the best part of 10 minutes – the strike that sent Davide Zappacosta’s name ringing round the ground (plus a further chorus, a little bit later, to the effect that he scores at the times of his own choosing) and surely as colourful a debut goal as any of us have seen at Stamford Bridge. Legend duly established. He probably doesn’t have to do anything else this season, in all truth – although, of course, we’d rather he did.

That goal was just one of six, of course, brought about by some spectacularly energetic performances (not least that of Willian, who ran throughout as though hitched up to the mains) on the evening that marked our club’s return to the Champions League after a year away – a painful absence, it goes without saying, although time does fly when you’re winning the league. Last year we spent the group stage putting together what would eventually become a 13-match winning streak in the Premier League, so although one would occasionally end up casting a longing or slightly poignant look at the television screen on those Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there were definitely consolations. Anyway, it’s good to be back, and good to know the tape of the anthem still works. (We still shiver to recall the Champions League night at the Bridge, a few seasons ago, when the Premier League anthem was played by mistake and when surely a major diplomatic incident was only narrowly averted.)

All this said, we’ve heard quite a lot this week (as we frequently do, in fact, when the Champions League starts up again) about the make-up of the groups and whether the presence of certain teams, whom some observers deem ‘undeserving’ of their place at the pinnacle of European club football, dilutes the competition. In particular, the credentials of our Azerbaijani opponents on Tuesday night, Qarabag, came in for an awful lot of wry dismissiveness in the build-up, much of which ended up sounding, to these ears, like the very purest kind of snobbery.

Okay, nobody ever described Azerbaijan as one of Europe’s key footballing hotbeds, but Qarabag are champions of their national competition, came through qualifying and therefore completely deserve to be where they are. If it’s essentially the same handful of clubs that people want to see, then maybe they shouldn’t start watching until later, in the knock-out phase. In the meantime, a few different names (and Qarabag is unarguably a different name) from a few places you don’t frequently think about surely only enrich the competition, not to mention broaden the mind.

And if you end up winning 6-0, then even better.