PAT NEVIN: OUTLOOK BRIGHT
With the team in the middle of two unresolved cup ties, columnist and former Chelsea Player of the Year Pat Nevin saw signs on Sunday to back up his long-held optimism…
I like to think of myself as quite a logical kind of chap, someone who can spot patterns and discern roughly what may happen next, particularly in football.
This method of course hasn't often been particularly useful regarding Chelsea FC over the years, but recently gauging where we are and what on earth is going to happen next has been pretty much impossible. Fortunately I am not alone being unable to predict the Blues moves.
Last week on this page I asked a question I sometimes throw in for the quiz, what did you think the score would be at the weekend up at Old Trafford?
I would say that normally 95% go for a Chelsea win of some sort or another, there is sometimes the odd pragmatist citing the draw while fewer still suggest a Blues defeat. I know there is a certain amount of heart ruling head involved in these predictions most weeks, but this week it was a bit of a shock with many entrants plumping for a defeat.
Following some losses up at Old Trafford, you could see the sense and of course there is the small matter that they are (whisper it in case they hear) a pretty good team who are on course to win the league easily, and they were extremely unlucky to lose to Real Madrid in the Champions League a few days before. I still do not think that was the real reason for the negativity, I suspect it was largely down to the fluctuating performances and in particular the defeat in Bucharest on Thursday.
Personally I thought the bobbly pitch in Romania had a lot to do with the poor quality of the passing and running with the ball, I have been there before on those sorts of pitches and just controlling the ball coming at you at pace is well-nigh impossible, never mind running with it or actually beating players. In situations like these you just have to get your head down, battle it out and grind out a result, which we did not manage to do on this occasion.
And so it was a gloomy postbag all this week that I manfully waded through. Ten minutes into the United game and the worst fears looked certain to be fulfilled and then it slowly turned. From my position there were parts of the second half that were among the best passages of play I have witnessed from Chelsea in a long, long time. What chance have we got of predicting anything if the performances change radically not just from game to game but from half to half?
United should have been stronger and fitter as the game wore on, they had two days extra rest, they were at home, they hadn't been jetting out to the far reaches of the continent a couple of days before. All in all I thought it was exceptional by the end and had De Gea's leg not got in the way in the last minute then it would have been one of the most memorable wins in many a year.
Last week I said we were on the cusp of finding out what kind of season this really is, we could be out of both cups by now, or sitting pretty, but instead we are absolutely no clearer on our chances of success than we were this time last week.
Suffice to say Manchester United will not relish coming down to the Bridge for the replay if we can produce anything like the quality we did in that second half up there. If we can play at that standard against Steaua Bucharest on a flat home ground, I have few worries that they will be put to the sword as well. The only problem is that there were a few too many 'ifs' in that last sentence!
It kind of goes back to the mantra I have, that this is and always was going to be a transitional season considering the changes in style and personnel. At Old Trafford you couldn't help but see that Chelsea have some fine young players, who hopefully will only improve and who on this occasion didn't look at all cowed by their opponents and the surroundings.
For the likes of Hazard and Oscar this first season is an important time for learning that and there is little doubt that both of them look to the likes of Juan Mata with his extra season's experience, to gain some belief when the big questions are asked. For all the negative feeling around, much of it understandable, I still choose to see a very bright future from next season onwards, if not sooner if we are lucky. Doubtless a few will suggest my 'sunny disposish' as PG Wodehouse would have described it, will be considered as a myopic Chelsea bias (I get that aimed at me every Friday night on BBC Radio 5 Live), but it is just how I see it going forward and that has been the case ever since the very start of this season.
It is also worth noting that the substitutions seem to have been working fairly well recently. In the last round of the Europa, in both games subs came on and scored vital goals. When Frank Lampard and Victor Moses were replaced at Old Trafford with Eden Hazard and John Mikel Obi, things improved dramatically. I certainly wouldn't have predicted just such an impressive upturn in the game and wouldn't have necessarily made those changes myself. But then as I said, predicting what will happen at any time with Chelsea is a mug's game.
In saying that maybe I should apologise to you for asking you to predict Sunday's score, I am not suggesting you are mugs!I will be honest in my online predictions game I didn't go for a draw and okay I'll own up, I didn't think we would win either. Oh me of little faith, and I am supposed to be the positive one!
So not many of you went for the draw in last week's quiz and only seven out of over 500 entrants plumped for the precise outcome of 2-2. The one winner chosen from that select band was Gary Jardine. Congratulations and Gary, could you let me know what the score is going to be in the replay, it is not that I am going to bet on it, it is just to relieve some of the tension for once. That is of course when the game finally does get played in the midst of the incredible fixture congestion.
This week to stand a chance of winning a Munich Champions League final picture signed by one of the players, could you tell me when was the last time Chelsea played a Manchester club in a cup replay and what was the score? Answers as usual to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime I am looking forward to being at the Bridge for the Steaua game. I suspect it will be a great atmosphere as we attempt another fine comeback. I also expect that the Romanian fans will really add to the atmosphere. They were very noisy in the first match and those who travel will be well up for it. Alongside the Steaua fans already living and working in the UK who will make it down to the Bridge, they will make sure it is jumping, it should be a blast.
Tickets for Thursday's match are available from the Stamford Bridge box office, online or via the call centre on 0871 984 1905.