GILES SMITH: THE QUEST

The competition is familiar but our status in it is new. So what has changed ponders Giles Smith in this week's column. He also sets himself a new challenge…


Ah, those first Champions League nights in September: the familiar strains of the anthem again, the slight autumnal chill in the air, the sense of a potentially life-altering adventure beginning, the pernickety refereeing... We wouldn't have it any other way, would we? Apart, possibly, from the pernickety refereeing. And maybe also the autumnal chill, if we haven't thought to bring a coat.

Clearly the occasion gets to the players in important, galvanising ways, too. Last night's performance was as different from Saturday's mildly understated efforts against Queen's Park Rangers as Loftus Road is from a decent place to watch football.

As you may be aware, we won this competition last year - and did so through some bloody-minded clinging-on and some highly efficient counter-punching, mostly in order to annoy Franz Beckenbauer. And enormously enjoyable it was, too.

But, on last night's evidence, that doesn't appear to be the way we intend to defend it. Last night was our first proper sight of the energy-boost supplied to this team by Oscar and Eden Hazard, working together, and it looked like a dual set-up that could very quickly turn into a thing of wonder. I'd hate to have been a member of Juventus's back line last night, getting harrassed and closed down by Oscar and Hazard on the form they were in in the first half, in particular. It would have been like being trapped in a small car with two hornets.

Plus if there was a better taken goal on our ground in the last three decades or so than Oscar's second one last night, then I'm struggling to remember it. It was, of course, classically, the kind of goal that deserved to win a match, so there was bound to be some disappointment when Juventus crept back into it. Bear in mind, though, that Juventus are no slouches and, indeed, don't appear to have lost a match in Serie A since the age of the oil lamp.

Also, it would seem to me, looking at our group, that the key to qualifying from it is to drop points (if we must drop any at all) only when Juventus are doing so, too. To that extent, we're bang on track to go through.

It didn't seem to me that the obsessive grit that took us all the way to victory in Munich last time has in any way deserted the side, either. I think we all know that if last night's match had gone to penalties, we would have won.

 

With European competition back under way, we can once again turn our minds to the big questions which have bamboozled humankind since time immemorial: namely, who are the goal-line officials? Who sent them? And what do they want?

And also what do they do? And when do they do it? And has anyone ever noticed?

From my position in the corner of the Matthew Harding Upper, I'm in a pretty good position to observe the workings of these mysterious, slightly otherworldly entities. Accordingly, on the evidence of my own eyes last night, I can report that, in the first half, when there was a direct free kick to Juventus in a fairly dangerous area near the edge of the penalty area, the official near Petr Cech's goal stood to one side and, ever so slightly, crouched.

So, at least part of the answer to the question about what goal line officials do is this: a bit of crouching.

As for the other questions (what else they do, who they are, who sent them, what they want), we're still entirely in the dark. But there's nothing like a mental challenge and our quest to understand will no doubt continue as the competition unfolds. Indeed, let's make 2012/13 the season in which we finally pin down the point of the goal-line official.

And award yourself extra points for working out what he's doing with that black stick.

 

The last time we let a two-goal lead slip in the Champions League? Against Monaco in the second leg of the 2004 semi-final at Stamford Bridge, chasing a 3-1 deficit after the first leg in Monte Carlo on that fateful night when a kangaroo got loose in the top paddock of poor Claudio Ranieri's brain.

Monaco

Such was the grotesque horror of that first night in France (some of us lost the power of speech during those 90 minutes and didn't recover it for several days after we had returned to England) that one tends to forget what happened later, in the second installment - how we went 2-0 up in the first half and were technically heading for the final on away goals until Monaco added another (possibly handled) before half-time and then a second in the second half to bump us out properly.

In the great catalogue of Champions League miseries, other incidents tend to bulk larger - the goal that wasn't, events in Moscow, Iniesta in the dying minutes, etc. But, as time passes, and with the calmer perspective that comes from having finally won the competition, that pair of matches against Monaco increasingly looks like it deserves to be right up there. It might be time for a formal historical revision.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling that Manchester City's reversal away to Real Madrid on Tuesday night gratifyingly illustrated an important lesson: namely, that you can't simply buy success in the Champions League. You have to work at it.