GILES SMITH: MY NUMBER JUAN
An unusually large amount of spare hours has given columnist Giles Smith opportunity to champion the cause of one of our own for the individual accolades…
What's going on? It's been four days since we last had a match to think about. Four days!
Count them. Between the final whistle in the 2-1 defeat of Sunderland at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon and this evening's oddly-timed Europa League game in Russia, some 96 barren hours will have gone by - a mind-numbing, foot-dragging, yawn-inducing eternity by recent standards.
Those four days - incredible to relate - have included three whole 24-hour periods with absolutely no football in them for us whatsoever. None! Really. I checked. Absolutely no football matches involving Chelsea's first team were played on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, according to everything I could discover by talking to people close to the club and going on the internet.
That's almost unfathomable, isn't it? Ordinarily, faced with what is - let's be frank about it - more than half a week unoccupied by football, we would have been obliged to find space somewhere for at least one domestic cup replay and a rearranged league match with three potentially critical points at stake, possibly against Fulham, or maybe Spurs.
Instead, though - nothing. Just an aching void, filled only with the ticking of the clock and the noise of supporters distractedly drumming their fingers on tables and scratching off another day on the calendar that they have crudely improvised on the wall with a knife (possibly).
I'm assuming the club took advantage of this unexpected break to take the players off for a spell of warm-weather training. Long lulls with nothing going on in them are the enemy of a team's focus. It will have been important, in such a phase of inactivity, to keep everyone on their toes and focussed on the various tasks, domestic and European, that confront us. Or eventually confront us, when this uncalled-for slack period is finally over.
When will that be? All the expert opinion points to this evening, when our Europa League quarter-final second leg against Rubin Kazan will finally end the drought.
And then, when that's through, it will be less than three days until the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. That's more like it.
Watching Juan Mata cover another 400 square miles of turf last Sunday, and leave the pitch to a standing ovation - and all this at the end of the busiest week in the club's history, and in a team performance which even the most one-eyed of Chelsea fans would have to admit was a little on the underpowered side - one could only continue to be amazed about how infrequently that routinely distinguished performer's name comes up in discussions about this season's likely player of the year.
Invariably, any debate you come across in this area will raise two names, and very often two names only: Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez.
That's Gareth Bale who only really woke up when the season was a third of the way through, has flickered only fitfully since then and who is now injured for an as yet undetermined period.
And that's Luis Suarez who has, indeed, been pretty much the only thing separating Liverpool from a relegation dogfight this year, but who has also failed to produce a significant contribution in his given role on so many occasions, home and away, that his team currently find themselves 14th in the league (or wherever they are. It's somewhere down there).
Okay, everyone admits that this has not been a vintage season, across the board. Indeed, it has been a distinctly mediocre one, in which a not especially brilliant Manchester United side has been able virtually to close down the title race by the beginning of April while, at the same time, not offering up a single player who could reasonably be considered for the season's biggest individual accolade. Okay, Robin van Persie, maybe, at a push. But otherwise, nobody.
Is it not time to open this strangely blinkered debate up a little wider? If you're looking for a player who genuinely has spent 2012/13 working ceaselessly and inventively across the broadest possible number of competitions, then that player, surely, would be Juan Mata.
You'll still find a lot of people ready to argue that FA Cup semi-finals shouldn't be played at Wembley - that this diminishes the romantic status of the venue for the final, that the fabled 'road to Wembley' was never intended to go, slightly self-defeatingly, via Wembley, and that life was altogether better and more wholesome when a match like Chelsea v. Manchester City would have taken place somewhere neutral - probably Villa Park.
It may well be that, in terms of complete neutrality, Wembley is a slightly imperfect venue for this Sunday's game. City, one would have to acknowledge, rarely go to Wembley, whereas, in recent years, it has felt like we practically live there. In that sense, the choice of Wembley could be said to lean very slightly in our favour.
But, even setting aside the matter of recent history and geography, I often find myself arguing against Wembley's use on these semi-final occasions. I harbour fond memories of trips to Villa Park for a semi-final against Fulham (which we won) and less fond memories of a trip up there for a semi-final against Manchester United (which we lost).
Mind you, I also remember, after that Fulham game, getting extremely lucky with some overnight roadworks (they were just beginning to put out the cones when I sped through) which kept other travellers back to London (including, I believe, the team bus) snarled up until the early hours of the morning.
Also, thinking about it, back in the days when Wembley's catering was dreadful, you would almost rather have gone anywhere else for a match, whatever match it was, including the final. Whereas, in the vicinity of Villa Park, there happens to be more than one exceptionally good fish and chip shop.
But then, of course, the new Wembley got its catering act together and the fish and chips - and, indeed, the pizza slices, which used to resemble wet cardboard - though certainly pricey, made a great leap forward in terms of quality. So catering can't really be considered a factor any more.
On reflection, then: better stadium, closer to home, with quite good food, plus that vague but possibly crucial sense of home advantage... what's not to like about holding a semi at Wembley?