Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Columnist and season ticket holder Giles Smith is able to rest up this weekend after the exertions of following his team in the past two games. Here he gives his fan’s-eye view…

 

The more you think about last week, with the benefit of hindsight and the ability to look at it as a whole, the more you appreciate the full extent of the test that those few days represented. And you can see why some people are already beginning to wonder whether it will come to stand in some way as a defining mini-phase within the season as a whole.

Last week confronted us with two matches, separated by six days – and two very tough challenges, one on top of the other. The fact that we cleared both these formidable hurdles seems to suggest much about where our team stands right now in terms of coherence, spirit and, above all, durability. First there was the FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at the Bridge on the Monday night. And then, with that complex and high-pressured task despatched, on the Saturday afternoon there was the Premier League game away at Stoke City.

We knew they would sit back, play a dense and sturdy defensive line, rely on their impressive physicality, happily surrender the ball for long periods, inhibit our creativity by means both fair and foul, and hope to snatch something on the counter. But that’s Manchester United these days.

As for Stoke, it was tempting to expect more of the same, although, as a friend mournfully remarked to me the other weekend, when Stoke disappointed an expectant nation by rapidly falling three goals behind against Tottenham, ‘Stoke aren’t really Stoke any more, are they?’

It turns out, however, that Stoke can still do an extremely powerful imitation of Stoke when they put their minds to it. In fact, on a good day, Stoke are as Stoke as they have ever been – if not more so. We saw that with wince-inducing clarity last Saturday as the tackles from Phil Bardsley and Bruno Martins Indi among others came in. 

Incidentally, I enjoyed Mark Hughes’s suggestion, after the match, that Diego Costa ‘draws fouls.’ At Stoke, drawing a foul could hardly be defined as an arcane or darkly complex art. At Stoke, one ‘draws’ fouls much in the way that one ‘draws’ charity muggers just by walking up Balham High Road. It’s not particularly difficult. It goes with the territory.

Anyway, our team dug in deep and went pushing for more when the setback of that soft penalty equaliser might have tempted a less-determined side to resign themselves to a perfectly respectable draw. And one now sees how playing Manchester United right before this game, and getting used to the deployment of a trip rota on key creative midfielders, was in many ways the perfect preparation for Stoke, who do it with just that little bit more style and commitment.

Memorably happy scenes at the climax of Saturday’s game included our manager swinging from the roof of the dugout, now officially our second favourite managerial goal celebration of the season after the crowd-surfing at home to Arsenal. Many reporters seem to have interpreted that image and the post-game congratulations on the pitch between manager and players as a declaration – sub-consciously or otherwise – that the title was effectively clinched and the job was done. But, of course, the job isn’t done, the title wasn’t effectively clinched and such complacency isn’t particularly encouraged around these parts. To me, those scenes looked more like simple and deserved relief at the end of a tough, tough week.

Of course, we’ve all been required to take a break now, so that Scotland can play Canada and so that all other manner of important football excitements can unfold around the globe. But actually, for once, the breathing space might be mildly welcome, not least if it enables Eden Hazard to recover from that calf injury and a few other bruises, no doubt, to fade.

Because then it all starts again and the stiff hurdles get laid down once more. Our next home game is against Crystal Palace, now under the steady stewardship of Sam Allardyce. Last Saturday Palace managed the ultra-rare feat of winning a match in which they had exactly no shots on target. (Their match against Watford was decided by a solitary Troy Deeney own-goal.) Football doesn’t get much more Allardyce than that. And our task, though definitely that little bit shorter, shows no sign of getting any easier.

Of course, we’ve all been required to take a break now, so that Scotland can play Canada and so that all other manner of important football excitements can unfold around the globe. But actually, for once, the breathing space might be mildly welcome, not least if it enables Eden Hazard to recover from that calf injury and a few other bruises, no doubt, to fade.

Because then it all starts again and the stiff hurdles get laid down once more. Our next home game is against Crystal Palace, now under the steady stewardship of major bus-parking expert, Victorian football aficionado and former England boss Sam Allardyce. Last Saturday Palace managed the ultra-rare feat of winning a match in which they had exactly no shots on target. (Their match against Watford was decided by a solitary Troy Deeney own-goal.) Football doesn’t get much more Allardyce than that. And our task, though definitely that little bit shorter, shows no sign of getting any easier.

Of course, we’ve all been required to take a break now, so that Scotland can play Canada and so that all other manner of important football excitements can unfold around the globe. But actually, for once, the breathing space might be mildly welcome, not least if it enables Eden Hazard to recover from that calf injury and a few other bruises, no doubt, to fade.

Because then it all starts again and the stiff hurdles get laid down once more. Our next home game is against Crystal Palace, now under the steady stewardship of major bus-parking expert, Victorian football aficionado and former England boss Sam Allardyce. Last Saturday Palace managed the ultra-rare feat of winning a match in which they had exactly no shots on target. (Their match against Watford was decided by a solitary Troy Deeney own-goal.) Football doesn’t get much more Allardyce than that. And our task, though definitely that little bit shorter, shows no sign of getting any easier.