GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
Columnist and supporter Giles Smith is back, and on his return was given plenty to theorise about by those in action at Stamford Bridge last night, and not only the players…
The second goal by Samuel Eto'o last night would probably earn the higher marks for artistic impression, but there was a lot to be said for the first goal, too, I thought. It will certainly live equally long in the memory, if not longer.
OK, maybe it wasn't quite as nakedly comical as the one Fernando Torres scored with his backside, round about this time last year, but it was still a classic demonstration of the poacher's art and the second in an ongoing series of lessons Eto'o has seemingly decided to give this season in making goalkeepers look like utter mugs. (Lesson one, which was a little more controversial, vis a vis possession of the ball, was in the Cardiff match.)
So, a satisfying evening, all in all, one which successfully obliterated memories of the peculiar flakiness witnessed in Newcastle at the weekend and made it next to certain that we'll make it out of the group stage this year and have to appoint someone else to defend our Europa League title for us. (I appoint Manchester United.)
Plus, as anyone round here will tell you, it wouldn't be a proper Champions League match without an entirely baffling refereeing decision of some kind, and last night's game amply delivered in that category, too - the obligatory head-scratcher coming quite late in the first half and featuring (for the first time, I think, in the history of bafflingly referee'd Champions League games involving Chelsea) a missing boot.
There we were, 1-0 up, bearing down with menace on the Schalke penalty area, with the ball at the feet of the excellent Willian, when suddenly the referee blew his whistle to halt play, having spotted, several yards behind the action, a Schalke player with only one boot on.
The other boot had come off in a challenge a few moments earlier in the build-up to the attack. But why did the game have to stop at this precise moment? Why couldn't the player have been left to put his boot back on while we carried on taking the ball towards, and possibly into, the Schalke goal? Does a loose boot, 20 feet or so behind the ball, have the same, instant game-stopping status as a head wound? Or was the referee merely more than commonly alive to the threat of verrucas which, let's face it, spread very easily and (as anyone who has got unlucky in a municipal swimming pool knows) are very difficult to shake off once caught?
All we can say for certain is that ghost goals, spurious sendings off, whole strings of ungiven penalties… you think you've seen it all, but the refereeing in the Champions League always finds another way to surprise you. That's the magic of it, and the reason we come back, season after season.
On the subject of refereeing, this column is engaged in a long-term, in-depth study into the work of UEFA goal line officials - a study which we're hoping, when it's eventually completed and published, will shed some valuable light on a puzzle which has defeated some of the finest minds of our time over the last few years: namely, what those mysterious, often barely moving, supplementary figures at each end of the pitch actually do over the course of the 90 minutes for which they are visible and, by extension, what on earth they are for.
And if, along the way, we get to the bottom of what the point is of those little sticks (possibly wands? Or television remotes?) they always seem to be carrying - well, then, happy days.
Accordingly, for me personally, each Champions League match isn't simply a game of football: it's an exciting research opportunity, always bringing with it the tantalising prospect of a major academic breakthrough.
Now, I'm writing this straight after the match and, obviously, it's too early to be certain and we'll need time to run a proper rule over these findings and digest their information before we can be confident enough to make a categorical announcement. But I did have what seemed to me to be a bit of a 'eureka moment' in this area during the second half last night.
It was inspired by the outfits the goal line officials were wearing, which were mostly dark but included bright yellow inserts on the upper portion of the sleeves. And it made me wonder: are these additional assistants just, in fact, decorative? Are they simply there to add a bit of colour to the scene generally - much as you might, say, put a pot plant on the table in your hall? After all, to most people's minds, nothing brightens up a room like a pot plant. And maybe, to UEFA's mind, nothing brightens up a football ground like a goal line official.
Like I say, it's too soon to be making any conclusive statement and there's a lot of scrutiny of the findings still to be done. But, in the meantime, it's a theory. And I've yet to hear a better one.
Was I hallucinating, or did the big screen last night suggest that Arsenal were a goal behind at Borussia Dortmund? And didn't a hearty, four-sided cheer greet that news? Or, again, was that merely in my head, the product of not having had any supper before coming to the ground?
Either way, I seemed to get it into my head that Arsenal were losing and, accordingly, it was a bit of a surprise to get back to the car and learn from the radio that Arsenal had, in fact, won, 0-1, completing a rare English double over German sides on the night.
I suggested to a friend that Arsenal's failure to live up to the destiny described for them on the big screen had slightly marred an otherwise perfect evening. But he patiently reminded me that we don't want Arsenal finishing fourth in their group and going out of Europe entirely. We want them finishing third and going into the Europa. Therefore Arsenal's win, which keeps their chances of finishing third, not fourth, thrillingly alive, was, like ours, something to celebrate, if you only looked at it the right way.
I count myself very lucky to have friends with so much perspective.