GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

No Chelsea fan can complain about a lack of games to watch this season, but it is still a bonus when one no longer has to be missed, as season ticket holder Giles Smith explains in this week's column…

Here's what I don't understand: we are about to enter the most congested period of fixtures our club has known in recent history - perhaps the most congested period of fixtures our club has known ever. It's a period that's going to make the junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street on the last Saturday before Christmas look no more crowded than the Orkneys in January.

By dint of shuffling one fixture this way (to the irritation of television schedulers) and shuffling another fixture another way (to the irritation of travelling fans with pre-booked train tickets) and then squeezing another fixture into a bank holiday which just happens to be conveniently available, room has just about been scraped together in which our team can complete four matches in nine days.

Four matches in nine days!

And not just any old four matches: two cup quarter finals, and two Premier League fixtures at a clearly critical moment for our highly promising, but still not entirely comfortable campaign to finish the season in the top four.

And yet what's going on right now? Absolutely nothing. Between that scintillating performance against West Ham (as convincing a 2-0 victory as one could ever reasonably expect to see) and the first game of the four-in-nine run (away at Southampton, now on Easter Saturday, rather than Easter Sunday) 13 whole days will have passed with no Chelsea matches in them whatsoever.

Thirteen days in which, say, two of those four games could have found a comfortable home, thus making the nine-day scramble completely unnecessary.

And the reason? International football, of course. If it weren't for international football, the season would run perfectly smoothly, even for ultra-competitive clubs such as our own who face a potential 70-match workload. And if it weren't for international football, our prospects of success in our pursuit of each of our three remaining targets this season would be even better than they already are.

If it all goes horribly wrong over that nine-day period, I know what I'm blaming: international football.

I'll say one thing for international football, though: it's inadvertently sorted out my Sunderland at home problem.

My Sunderland at home problem? A friend's wedding.

Always tricky, these fixture clashes. I've been tested before in this area, as we all have. In 1994, I missed a friend's daughter's christening. Sent my apologies. Would have loved to have been there, but we were at home to Wolves in an FA Cup quarter final. Didn't go down particularly well. My absence from the ceremony caused a ruction in the friendship which lasted quite a while. I still feel slightly guilty, nearly 20 years later.

Mind you, we won 1-0 with a 58th-minute volley from Gavin Peacock (pictured above) and I wouldn't have wanted to miss that.

This time? Missing the wedding? Not an option. My daughter's a bridesmaid, for heaven's sake. I mean, I like to think of myself as fairly loyal to the cause, but what am I going to say? 'Sorry, everyone: would love to be there, but it's Sunderland at home.'

So what I say is nothing. Not a word of complaint. Not even an agenda-concealing joke about the pain of missing a home game. Absolutely nothing.

What happens? Two weeks out, the game gets shifted to Sunday. I no longer have a Sunderland at home problem. I'm saying it's karma.

The Europa League continues to be a fascinating and illuminating journey, whatever the cynics may say about it. There will be quite a few of us, I'm sure, who, until last week's draw, thought Rubin Kazan was that bloke who liked shaving with a Remington razor so much that he bought the company. So, there you are: revelations at every stage.

Kiam


Personally, I can't think of a better way right now to be spending our Thursday nights - and last week's second-half performance against Steaua Bucharest, after the blow to the solar plexus of that away goal right on half-time, indicated fairly comprehensively that the players seem to be entirely on board with the project, too.

Unlike, say, Manchester United, ours has never been a club that sneered at the prospect of competitive football in any and all of the approved forms in which it is offered (we have never, like United and so many others, had the arrogance to presume that a sanctioned tournament was somehow below us in some way) and that wholesome and surely exemplary philosophy was surely plain to see for all of the rest of football last Thursday.

Indeed, the only reservation one could possibly have about the Europa League at this stage is that, on paper, there appear to be a couple too many English clubs in it. Nothing spoils the European experience like being forced to meet another English club somewhere along the way. It's like being offered a vacation in your own sitting room: all very well up to a point, and better, perhaps, than working, but not really, in the end, what you want from a holiday.

We learned that lesson very thoroughly in the Champions League, in that period when the needle seemed to get stuck and we were forever coming up against Liverpool. (Note to younger readers: yes, funny though it seems to say so nowadays, Liverpool were indeed a Champions League side once upon a time. But don't go too bonkers trying to get your head around it: it's ancient history, really, and one for the obscurer kinds of quiz.)

All we can sensibly do is hope that the next round whittles a couple of those superfluous English clubs away - something which the last round seems to have come very close to managing, certainly in Tottenham's case. And then, so long as we're still in it ourselves, we will be able to find no fault with the Europa League at all.