GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
A new competition finds supporter and columnist Giles Smith looking forward in anticipation this week, but there is still chance to look back too, and at the key to the most recent victory…
So, our first taste of Thursday night football looms. It certainly feels like a different kind of experience in prospect - although in a season of so many unlikely turn-ups, and which has already included Thursday morning football (in the Club World Cup) and a trip to Brentford, we could hardly consider ourselves better prepared.
Either way, I can't wait. Some people dismiss the Europa League, but you'll find none of that casual cynicism here. We say: bring it on. And see you at 6.00, assuming we get home from work in time.
The Europa is, after all, Europe's second most important club knock-out competition. And consider how we got here. Some teams just drift into this competition after a season of middling achievement has left them sixth in their league. Some (whisper it) even qualify merely by winning their country's equivalent of the Capital One Cup. Imagine.
And others only get a back door pass into the Europa League because another team happens to win the previous season's Champions League. Mentioning no Tottenhams, who, basically, didn't have to do or win anything at all to qualify for the Europa.
Not us, though. We had to struggle to get here, and put in some serious hours, battling members of Europe's true elite across six energy-depleting group phase games throughout the autumn, matching Juventus blow for blow (in one of our ties) and comprehensively dispatching Shakhtar Donetsk (at home). And only then did we qualify for the Europa. In other words, we did it the hard way and we shouldn't allow ourselves to forget that.
And should the day of the final dawn and we find ourselves climbing off trains and planes in Amsterdam, then we'll be mighty glad we put in the effort.
'Thursday night, ESPN.' Sing it loud, and sing it proud.
Looking back to last Saturday, all the indications were that, on a witheringly cold and altogether deeply unpromising afternoon, we finally cracked it - found the solution to our recent puzzling problem, the one that mysteriously dogged us against Reading, Southampton and, in a slightly different way but even more critically, Newcastle.
And the solution turned out to be a simple one: score two more goals.
When, after we had advanced smoothly into a 2-0 lead, Wigan pulled one back to make the score 2-1, I think we could all see how it was going to pan out - even the most optimistic among us. Almost everything we understood about recent history and life in general at that moment pointed to Wigan finding an equaliser, and most likely in the fourth minute of time added on, just to make it even more grindingly irritating.
And thereby the result could join the short but nevertheless extraordinary, unforeseeable and really quite painful list of 2-0 leads in 2012/13 that somehow, almost mystically, became 2-2 draws. (See also Juvenus at home in the Champions League, Southampton at home in the League and Reading away.)
Some of us settled deeper into our seats in cringing anticipation.
But no. This time we got to the root of the problem and utterly dealt with it. And we did so by scoring two more goals.
Those two more goals entirely sorted it. Think how different things would have been at Reading, and against Juventus and Southampton, and even up at Newcastle, if we'd only thought to come up with those two additional goals. We'd be seven points better off in the league, and still playing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Europe, not that there's any indignity in playing on Thursdays.
I think we can all agree that nothing removes the chance of a 2-0 lead becoming a 2-2 draw quite so efficiently as two more goals. Two more goals will do it for you every time.
I don't know why we didn't happen upon this 'two more goals' approach earlier on. There it was - right under our noses all the time. But isn't that so often the case when you lose something, such as your keys or your phone or a game at Reading?
On the topic of things right under people's noses, I was disappointed not to see Demba Ba's new face mask get a run-out last Saturday. The face mask has certainly been looking good in training, judging from the photographic evidence. It has his name and number on it, and everything - not something that we're banking on seeing if Cesar Azpilicueta ever busts his face on Fabio Collocini's boot. (You'd be looking at specially extending the face mask in those circumstances, I guess - much as Elton John used to wear a pair of fancy elongated specs that spelled 'ZOOM'. But even longer than that.)
And given that Ba went all the way to Milan to get the mask fitted, it seems a shame not to give it match exposure it at every opportunity, before his nose mends and the mask gets retired to the props cupboard. Obviously the manager has his reasons, and selects the team accordingly. Maybe on Sunday against Brentford, though, the face mask will be handed the stage it so richly deserves.
Word of a new deal for Frank Lampard filtered out yesterday, generating great excitement. Hands up, though, if your excitement level dipped at all when you discovered that the deal in question was for a series of books for children.
Nothing against books for children, of course, which are vital and more urgently needed than ever in this present day and age. And nothing whatsoever against Frank's books for children, which will no doubt be phenomenally consistent and lead the critics to marvel at their longevity, not to mention their capacity to pop up at important moments and make all the difference, entertainment-wise.
It was simply that, in the context of another deal in another area regarding Frank that many of us were hoping to hear about, this literary news didn't quite cut it. Ah well. Don't deals often lead to other deals? Isn't that how the world of business often works? Let's hope so.