GILES SMITH: HAVING A BREAK
Steadily adapting to today being a regular matchday, our columnist from the stands at Stamford Bridge, Giles Smith, considers the European week in general and our forthcoming visit to Manchester…
I can be enormously sentimental about the Champions League - like most of us, I'm sure, since that night of nights in Munich last May. Proprietorial, even.
I don't mind admitting that the sound of the massed choirs and tooting brass of the tournament's ceremonial anthem emanating even distantly from a television set these days can stir up some fairly potent feelings. (Thus far, the Europa League anthem isn't quite doing it for me in the same way - though it's early days, of course, and we're still settling into that Thursday night rhythm. Tonight will no doubt be another step.)
However, inevitably, those potent Champions League-kindled feelings have been accompanied over this past couple of weeks, inevitably, by a little pang of regret and maybe even a slight sense of hurt that that particular party seems to be going on without us.
I mean, I'm not saying I was expecting them to cancel the competition entirely out of sensitivity to us, after our unfortunate exit, as holders, in the group stage. But would it have been too much for them at least to have postponed it for a little while?
At the same time, observing the smoking rubble after Manchester United's defeat to Real Madrid this week - the fury at the nonsensical sending off, the anger at the ungiven penalty, narked players mobbing the referee afterwards, Rio Ferdinard sarcastically applauding right in the official's face, Sir Alex Ferguson in such a rage that his face appeared to be melting from the centre, like a candle - I confess I also found myself thinking, 'Thank God it's someone else for a change.'
Someone else, in other words, experiencing the excruciating sense of injustice and the grievous loss, trying to make sense of the textbook UEFA officiating, and readying themselves for, no doubt, the eventual handing down of bans and reprimands because of their reactions on the night. It was quite nice, in a way, to be having a bit of a break from all that.
Obviously, I'm not advocating that we have an extended break from these things. Indeed, if the break went on for more than a year, one would certainly start to miss all that aforementioned stuff quite badly.
But a little pause in which to catch one's breath and let United have a turn at the rough end of the stick for once - well, it's not an entirely bad thing, is it?
Is this a good time to be going to Old Trafford to meet United in the quarter finals of the FA Cup? I suspect most analysts would agree that it could go two ways.
On the one hand, the defeat to Real Madrid, and the manner of that defeat, in a game that they would have felt capable of winning, and in what is patently the season's most important competition as far as that club is concerned, could have an enormously depleting psychological effect on both the team and their supporters, not to mention the manager, leaving them listless and demoralised and unable to apply themselves properly to Sunday's task.
Alternatively, though, United could be all of the above and also knackered physically.
Let's see which way it pans out.
A couple of weeks ago in this space we tried to establish what at present, with our current side, would represent a comfortable and irreversible lead in any Premier League match - one at which even the most nervous or pessimistic of fans could begin to relax in his or her seat and start counting the points.
There has been a period in our recent history, of course, when one could have fairly confidently nominated 1-0 as a suitable target figure - the likely point of no return for our opponents. We enjoyed a couple of seasons where closing games down had been elevated to such an art that singing 'You might as well go home' seemed perfectly reasonable after the scoring of the first goal.
But, for better or worse, these are not those times and, having endured since Christmas a couple of unlikely disappointments at 2-0, we set the bar at 4-0. 4-0 seemed likely to do the job.
As such, Saturday's victory over West Brom fell short of the comfortable winning margin by three goals. And, accordingly, there were a couple of not-for-the-faint-hearted moments in the closing few minutes.
The simple fact is, though, that West Brom didn't equalise, and that 1-0 did prove to be enough. Which can only help to stimulate confidence levels and bring down that all-important margin of reassurance.
In fact, based on last Saturday's result and the largely flawless performance that led to it, I'm happy to revise downwards the previously proposed comfort figure right now to 3-0. Onwards and upwards, little by little.