Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

On a night when not much bothered some of our players, the cold did bother supporter Giles Smith, as did concern whether the goal would come, as he explains in this week’s column…

In a development which spoke volumes about the one-way nature of last night’s match, Thibaut Courtois came out during the half-time interval to warm up. Or rather to re-warm up, because obviously he had already done his usual share of warming up before the match started.

After that, though, nothing. Those pre-match crosses punted over by the coaching staff turned out to be the last meaningful action Courtois would see for 45 minutes. So utterly dominant was the performance of the rest of the team and so ruthless was the midfield and defence in closing down anyone who ventured over the half-way line, that, on the coldest night of the year, our goalkeeper was in severe danger of losing some of his extremities to hypothermia.

That first half was a complete blank up at the Matthew Harding End. I’m struggling to remember Courtois having even a goal-kick in that period to keep him warm. It was a pity he couldn’t bring some magazines along, or maybe some paperwork that needed catching up on. It was the perfect opportunity to knock off a Sudoku or two.

And it really was cold – a night for thoughtful tactical layering in the stands. I upped my game to four layers, including overcoat, for this one, and still felt like a minor character in Disney’s ‘Frozen’. It’s something I’m going to have to have a hard look at between now and the Newcastle game on Saturday lunchtime. If this current spell holds, can I go up to five layers without restricting my trademark pace and flexibility? I think I can, but I may organise a few light drills in front of the wardrobe on Friday just to be sure. 

 Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata are prepared for the cold snap with jumpers from the Megastore

Incidentally, there’s a strange cultural assumption within English football that hard weather only happens in the north. The notion frequently seems to be that some kind of micro-climate is in place, with the result that things like rain and low temperatures rarely occur within the M25, and that basically anywhere south of Peterborough is as balmy as the French Riviera all year round. Hence the patronising and tiresome question, asked in particular of foreign players (even Scandinavian ones, who know a thing or two about getting cold), about whether they might fancy it on a Wednesday night in Stoke.

Last night, surely, ended this meteorological fantasy once and for all, if anyone was still tempted to indulge it. The question might just as reasonably be: does he fancy it on a cold Wednesday night in south-west London? More particularly, does he fancy it on a cold Wednesday night in south-west London when he’s going to have absolutely nothing to do but watch football for the first 45 minutes? I think Courtois emphatically answered that question last night. And I think all of us who were in the crowd emphatically answered that question, too. Even more so, in fact, because we had nothing to do but watch football for the entire 90, whereas Courtois was called into action a couple of times later on (and, of course, was alert enough, and warm enough, to cope).

At what point do you start to worry, though? Not about losing your limbs to the weather, I mean; about the fact that all of the possession and creativity exhibited by your team, and all of the pressure exerted by it, have not yet converted into a goal? It’s the kind of thing that varies wildly from fan to fan, I’m sure. Maybe, like me, you’re neurotic enough to start having your doubts after 32 minutes, when the opposition’s goalkeeper pulls off his third spectacular save, causing you to wonder whether you might be witnessing ‘one of those goalkeeping performances’ and ‘one of those games when the ball just won’t go in.’ After all, how many clear-cut chances can a single side create before it runs out of steam and ideas?

Or maybe it’s around 40 minutes, when the ball appears to go out for a corner but the ref gives a goal-kick and sends off your manager instead. That last development in particular had me wondering whether this might be ‘one of those nights.’

After 54 minutes, and a further hatful of unconverted or cunningly stopped chances, I’ve got to say those anxieties were beginning to solidify. But then there was Antonio Rudiger at the back post creating, in the circumstances, a burst of relief that was, in its own way, virtually akin to that created by Willian’s much later equaliser at Anfield last Saturday.

That goal, incidentally, joined Davide Zappacosta’s goal against Qarabag in September as the second in what we hope will turn out to be a very long series of spectacular strikes which might, if we’re going to be all picky and literal about it, have been crosses. 

Who are we to say, though? It’s the classic quandary about intentions. How can you ever really know what’s going on in people’s minds? You have only their actions to judge them on. And in the case of both Willian and Zappacosta, their action was to stick the ball quite gloriously into the back of the net. Never mind the intention, feel the goal. And here’s to many more where those came from (which is to say, from a next-to-impossible angle, practically out on the right wing). Impossible to feel cold when that kind of thing is happening.