Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

No time to rest, names to note, nutrition and nominations stacking up are the fare served up by playing foreign opposition to Giles Smith for this week’s column…


Well, it all ended very well of course: four goals, a clean sheet, Champions League knock-out stage qualification with a game to spare, and all accomplished in the kind of relatively un-taxing manner that always goes down well when the Premier League schedulers have decided your team should make a trip to Anfield just three days after they get back from (to all intents and purposes) Asia.

Remember the days when European participation – at home or away; indeed, sometimes even if you had only travelled as far as Highbury - could guarantee your players respite until Sunday lunchtime at the earliest? Gone, all gone. A thing of the past, like oil lamps and traction engines.

However, I’m sure I won’t be alone in admitting that, going in last night, and with the outcome far from certain, I was struggling to adapt to that highly unusual midweek kick-off time of 5.00pm – or ‘Europa League o’clock’ as one tends to think of it.

That’s not a complaint, by the way. It’s one of the privileges of Champions League football to see your club tested in other time-zones – and, indeed, in this case, tested in another alphabet, which is when you really know they’re a long way from home.

Indeed, to use the names as written in last night’s programme from Baku (and disseminated widely across the internet for childish sniggering purposes among those of us who hadn’t travelled), Hari Kehill wasn’t in our starting 11, and neither was Danni Drinkvater (though both came on in the second half). But Tibo Kurtua was and so was Sesk Fabreqas, along with Eden Hazard, who, somehow fittingly, appears to be the same in any language.

Now, apparently, in order to lessen the disruption of the time difference that inevitably arises from pushing out to Europe’s extreme eastern rim, the players and coaching staff did their best to stay on GMT throughout this week’s trip – sleeping late, breakfasting at lunchtime, and so on.

The dilemma for those of us stuck at home and watching on BT Sport was whether we should follow them in that plan (relatively easy to accomplish), or whether we should do the opposite – switch to Azerbaijani time at some point on Tuesday in order to be in a position to get some supper away before kick-off on Wednesday, and thereby reduce the risk of hunger-related fatigue, leading to outbreaks of potentially unhealthy snacking, most notably around the 6.00pm mark, when we might normally be having our tea.

Don’t know about you, but in the end I elected to go the simpler route and abide by GMT, which worked out okay in terms of concentration levels over the 90 minutes, although a packet of Ginger Nuts unquestionably bore the brunt of that decision at half-time, with obvious knock-on effects in terms of appetite and overall desire when supper was eventually on the table. That’s watching televised football at the highest level, though.

As it happened, tricks with the time-frame were altogether a feature of last night’s match. Consider, for instance, the minutes it took for the coverage to re-join live play after that Qarabag shot that hit the bar early in the first half – an interval in which, with replay mounting upon replay, you could virtually have booked a flight and travelled out to see the remainder of the game for yourself.

It was almost as long as the delay that Qarabag managed to insert between the award of the first, and ultimately match-defining, penalty and the taking of it. A large portion of the evening seemed to elapse while our opponents found time, among other things, to stage a team meeting on the touchline. Soon after that it was Christmas, and then, once that was out the way, the referee finally blew for the penalty. One would have entirely forgiven Eden Hazard for losing his composure in the circumstances and it was all the more satisfying when he didn’t.

And then, of course, the pressure was even worse on the second penalty, after the referee called for a re-take following a premature invasion of the area by players from both sides. Again, none of this seemed particularly fair on Sesk Fabreqas. Yet he somehow kept calm and scored again. Good old Sesk.

Of course, it was in the parallel match at the Bridge in September, when Davide Zappacosta bombed down the entirety of the right wing and scored from a position not unadjacent to the tea-bar on the ground-floor concourse of the West Stand. Hardly a game goes by at the moment when someone in our team doesn’t try to dislodge that strike’s impressive claim to the Goal of the Season prize. Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard combined to add another one to the list on Saturday at West Brom, for instance – Alvaro’s impossibly cool flick, Hazard’s finish. Hazard and Willian were at it last night, too, with that whip-smart interchange for the second of the four. For sheer wildness, the Zappacosta goal is still up there for me, but you would have to say it’s coming under increasing pressure every time we play.

On which subject, next up: Liverpool on Saturday at 5.30pm. Adjust your clocks accordingly.