GILES SMITH: GETTING ON WITH IT
In the wake of an unanticipated draw at the weekend, Giles Smith is left to consider pass marks and loan rewards, as he discusses in this week's column…
If you had to nominate a theme for last weekend's results in the Premier League, I suspect you would go for 'unexpected struggling'. The plausible candidates for the league title and the Champions League places found themselves thwarted, to varying degrees, by humble mid-table sides for whom a slot in the Europa come next May would exceed all reasonable expectations.
Manchester United, for example, clearly had a panicky and unsophisticated old time of it seeing off Aston Villa from 2-0 down. Manchester City required the indignity of an 86th-minute goal in order to get rid of becalmed Tottenham. Arsenal were held at home by Fulham in another one of those 'high-scoring thrillers' (or 'feasts of ineptitude,' depending on your taste) which they seem to be going in for increasingly over at the Emirates. And then, of course, there was our own draw at Stamford Bridge with, of all people, Liverpool.
It's a close contest, but of all those head-scratching David and Goliath upsets (or near-upsets), our inability to take three points from the side in 13th place was, in many ways, probably the most baffling. It certainly wasn't a foreseeable outcome at any point in the first half, and the chance that Juan Mata narrowly failed to bury for 2-0 right on half time was just one of a clutch of untaken opportunities which really should have put the game beyond our plucky opponents long before an hour had passed.
But somehow, despite all the pressure, the second goal didn't come. And then, of course, as sage old observers of the game are endlessly saying, at 1-0 you are always vulnerable to the other team's striker pushing his marker over in the penalty area at a set-piece and nabbing an equaliser.
Ah, well. To use the words of David Haye on 'I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!', 'Them's the breaks.' And I suppose it's the unpredictability of it all - the way the competition continues to throw up these shocks and surprises - which makes the league we're in so exciting. The possibility of a little miracle like Liverpool's point on Sunday is why people, wherever you go, hold the Premier League in such high esteem. Anyone can draw with anyone on their day.
Raucous and prolonged celebrations from the visiting supporters at the final whistle, of course. And quite right, too. The point Liverpool earned on our ground keeps them six points out of the relegation dog-fight and is another incremental step towards the 40-point total which most people agree should be enough to ensure survival in the division this year. No one should be surprised to see the fans expressing their delight so fully and for so long.
What would represent success for Chelsea this year? Coming out of a season in which a club has won the Champions League and the FA Cup, this was always going to be a slightly complex question. Sometimes a team can become the victim of the standards it inadvertently sets itself.
For example, if we don't retain the Champions League (and bear in mind that nobody ever has), have we in some crucial way fallen short? If we merely hold onto the Champions League and the FA Cup, are we guilty of stagnating? If we don't win the Champions League and the FA Cup plus one other trophy, is the club failing to move forward?
Wherever one decides to peg the acceptable 'pass mark' for 2012/13, one big factor needs to be taken into consideration. Ours is a team in the middle of revolutionary change. It's sometimes hard to remember that. The house has been looking so smart these past couple of months that it's been easy to overlook the fact that we currently have the builders in, figuratively speaking. And our manager, heroically, never seeks to remind anyone.
During a restructuring project as far-reaching as this one, one affecting personnel in pretty much every area of the pitch and involving the introduction of a wholly altered playing style, most managers would be using the expression 'in transition' a lot, and, in effect, taking the season off to get it right. In Arsene Wenger's case, it would be the first of several seasons off. And yet, to the best of my recollection, Roberto Di Matteo hasn't used the expression 'in transition' even once. He just gets on with it.
So, taking all that stuff in the background as read, my personal pass mark for this season would be top three in the league. Tough, obviously. But maybe do-able. Obviously a cup of some description would be nice, too. Not fussy which one. But not fussy, either, if there's no cup. The most important thing is: top three in the league. It would be an improvement on last season when, in something of an anomaly, we managed to finish sixth. But, far more significantly than that, it would provide the necessary background and platform, in terms of league campaigning and European qualification, for 2013/14.
And then, beyond that, away we go. One trembles to think how good this transitional side will be next year, when it is no longer transitional.
After the entirely needless international 'mini-break' (as if our players don't do enough travelling in the fulfilment of their professional duties), our next Premier League match is on Saturday afternoon, away at West Brom - a proper challenge. Our manager's former club are currently fifth in the league, seven points off the top (and, incidentally, eight points ahead of Liverpool). And that's not entirely down to our own Romelu Lukaku, who will have to watch this one from a seat, thanks to the league's enlightened loan rules.
(I say 'enlightened,' but in fact I've often thought clubs should be able to collect benefits from the performances of their on-loan players, a bit like Air Miles, or Natwest YourPoints. For every five goals, say, scored elsewhere by someone on your books, you get an additional goal credited to your goals-for column. Or maybe a three-point bonus in the event that your player plays a significant part in keeping another club up. Something like that.)
Therefore, given the circumstances, and our own recent lapses, a win on Saturday and a performance entirely undistracted by the looming game with Juventus away in the Champions League, would seem to have a lot to recommend it. But with any luck a lot of people are looking at it that way, players and coaching staff included.