Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 20 Apr 2017
With the dusting settling on our last game and a semi-final to look forward to, columnist Giles Smith gives his Chelsea fan’s-eye view on the state of play…
What a puzzling few days it has been, with the world casting around in desperation to try and make sense of our result against Manchester United last Sunday afternoon - and very largely coming back in a state of bug-eyed hysteria.
Don’t get me wrong: I know Manchester United’s stock has fallen a fair bit in recent years and that nobody currently considers them to be the intimidating force they once were. I know also that, these days, top-four teams like ours go to Old Trafford expecting to win, or at the very least to draw, and certainly not to come away entirely empty-handed.
Even so, until this week I hadn’t realised that United’s reputation had plummeted so far in some people’s estimation that losing 2-0 away at Old Trafford could now be read as indicative of systemic problems in the defeated team on virtually every level – tactics, fitness, motivation, you name it. I didn’t realise that defeat to United was now the marker of confusion and inadequacy in the way that, say, embarrassment at home to a non-league side in the FA Cup used to be.
Yet that’s the way people have been talking about our most recent result, with very few critics seeming all that inclined to take the perfectly plausible, alternative and calmer view that this was an off-day in the rain in a match which we could afford to lose.
A match, one might add, against a team which even now, decline notwithstanding, is managed by the excellent and extremely canny Jose Mourinho and is chock-full of expensive players. Oddly, weighing the weekend’s developments, people didn’t seem to want to put any of that in the scales. Instead, alarm bells were noisily sounded regarding a worrying and possibly even ruinous crisis within our ranks, and reports that Tottenham (whose task this week was the less onerous one of beating Bournemouth at home) were significantly closing in on us seemed to share a tone with reports that Donald Trump’s armada was sailing for North Korea.
Of course, it subsequently emerged that Trump’s ships were going in exactly the opposite direction, away from Korea and harmlessly towards Australia, so make of that what you will.
After the match, our manager was a model of quiet poise and thoughtful self-examination, preferring not to seek excuses and stir unnecessary controversy. He’s been like that in post-match interviews all season, of course, and it’s one of the things we love about him and feel grateful for.
Had it been me, I would have probably wanted to make something far less classy out of the fact that we lost Marcos Alonso to illness in the warm-up, which is the kind of thing that can throw a team out, even on the best of days, especially when you throw in the fact that we had also lost our first-choice goalkeeper to injury.
I might also have dwelt on the distinct possibility that that bug had affected more people in the team than just Marcos Alonso. And I’m not sure I would have been able to resist pointing out how United profited from a goal that should have seen play brought back 120 yards for a free-kick for hand ball, and then, later on, from a shot that deflected through about 90 degrees and which could have gone anywhere but which (this being one of those days) ended up in the back of our net. But the manager took the higher road, and all credit to him.
Not that I’ve been entirely untroubled these past few days, you understand. By and large, anxiety and paranoia are the natural state of the football fan at the best of times, and I’m no different from anybody else in that respect. Accordingly, much as you probably have, I’ve spent a few nights since Sunday lying awake and fearfully considering the possibility of Spurs, against all odds, sneaking off with the league at this late stage, while also drawing up a shortlist of the islands I would most likely want to banish myself to for a decade or so in the event that such a thing did come to pass. (The Falklands look nice. Or, perhaps better, and certainly closer to home, somewhere in the Orkneys without electricity or contact with the wider world.)
But that’s just the irrational fan speaking, of course. Attempting to look at the situation as it stands, coldly and reasonably, there’s a decent question worth asking: which position would you rather be in at the moment? Top of the league, with a four-point cushion and with four of your six remaining games at home, two of them against teams who will probably already be relegated by the time you meet them? Or trailing by four points and with matches still to come against Manchester United and Arsenal, plus visits to newly resurgent Crystal Palace and Leicester City (who could certainly be said to owe us one), along with a visit to West Ham who – say what you like about them – have never been inclined to do Spurs many favours? The question answers itself, and an oddly underpowered afternoon in the Manchester rain hasn’t really altered anything.
I’m certainly not buying any of the stuff about this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final now carrying a potentially decisive psychological payload, either. Whatever the outcome on Saturday evening, both sides could find motivation in it for the remainder of the league campaign, win or lose, and it’s merely fanciful to see the match having any further bearing beyond deciding who gets to the final after the league season has ended.
Of course, we could further underscore the game’s irrelevance by fielding the reserves and keeping everyone fresh for the far bigger game, in my opinion – Southampton at home on Tuesday. But that’s not how this club tends to operate and the FA Cup’s historic claim to significance will presumably be duly honoured. Tottenham’s team selection, on the other hand (they have a game on Wednesday), I can’t vouch for. Either way, though, I’m looking forward to it.