GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

Posted on: Thu 16 May 2013

With his heart rate now back down to near resting level, in this week's column Giles Smith re-lives the short few minutes that won the night in Amsterdam, and considers what may still be to come…


He'll probably have to be 'One Goal' Branislav Ivanovic from now. But it won't feel like a down-grade.

What a header that was - one of those moments that looks like it's being replayed in slow motion even at the time it's actually happening. As the ball looped into the penalty area from Juan Mata's deep, deep corner, our central defender rose to a height from which, one likes to think, a panoramic view of Amsterdam by night was briefly available to him above the stadium roof.

Then his neck flexed and the ball looped back, equally and agonisingly slowly, towards the net, watched very carefully by the still descending Brana, Artur in the Benfica goal and 9000 upright Chelsea fans behind it.

And then you know the rest. Cue joy and mayhem of a kind that seems to be becoming a bit of an annual tradition on pleasant evenings in attractive European locations at around this time of the year.

But, of course, it wasn't all over, even then. For those of us who don't entirely feel we can rely on our cardiac systems for their full support during these occasions, the game was still to provide one further 'defibrillator moment'.

Within seconds of sliding the width of the arena to celebrate the goal that won the Europa League, Brana was steaming back into our own six-yard box to get what appeared to be half an ankle (a crucial half an ankle) to the through ball from which Oscar Cardozo would surely have taken the same Europa League into extra-time if Petr Cech, with one hand, and Gary Cahill, with two feet, hadn't simultaneously arrived to prevent him doing so.

And somewhere after that strenuous passage of activity for players and for spectators' heart muscles alike, the match ended and, all of a sudden, we had the complete set of UEFA-offered trophies to our name. Which means, among other things, that we get to keep UEFA (I think).

Anyway, 'a game of two halves,' people like to call football. But sometimes it's a game of two minutes. And sometimes it's even shorter than that.

Tough match up to then, of course - and especially the first half where we narrowly escaped being plunged into a whole world of woe.

How to explain it? Well, one factor might have been the pitch, which seemed to have been watered to the point where the production of a decent crop of rice before the hour-mark was not entirely out of the question. If they're going to do that when the big matches come to Amsterdam, they might as well hold these games on one of the city's plentiful canals and save resources.

Whether it was the paddy-field underfoot, or the combined effect of 68 competitive football matches in one season or simply the pressure attaching to the occasion and all its possibilities of redemption, everyone seemed slow and sluggish.

Plus, of course, Benfica looked rather good. A word of sympathy, at this point, for our opponents and their supporters. Benfica have lost seven of these European finals. By my calculation that's about nine more harrowing experiences than any human being should reasonably be expected to endure in peacetime. I'm glad their miserable run didn't end last night. But I hope it ends soon.

Benfica v Chelsea

Come the second half, though, and there was Fernando Torres breaking from deep and rounding the goalkeeper. (Remind you of anything?) And we might not have needed Brana to rise so high if that '203 Goal' Frank Lampard shot in the 87th minute had dipped just a couple of inches further and slashed the net, rather than thumped the bar.

That would have been a great way to win it, no question. But the way we did win it was even better.

A lot gets made of the masterful substitution. Managers receive an enormous amount of credit for slinging on a fresh pair of legs and then watching those fresh legs run up the other end of the pitch, past tired legs, and score. 'Game-changing,' we call that.

What about some credit where it's due for Rafa Benitez last night, then, and, by contrast, his masterful lack of substitutions? I don't think there's been a single game where he hasn't made at least one change. Last night, though: none.

His penultimate match in charge, a European final - the temptation to alter something, late-on, and have the night rebound quite vividly to his glory must have been enormous. But he didn't. He kept his faith in what was already out there. And he was right to.

Note, additionally, that we would have been in good nick for extra-time. Benfica, who got unlucky with an injury, had used all their substitutions, so would have had to plough on, unrefreshed. Thanks to Benitez's canny and nerveless conservatism, we could have played that extra period with more than a quarter of a new team, if we'd needed to.

Fortunately 'One Goal' Branislav Ivanovic stepped up for the 93rd-minute corner (in a move carefully planned on the training ground, incidentally), and extra-time never came into the equation. Even so: fair play to the manager.

Anyone fancy some more football? The final game of the season, at home to Everton on Sunday, will be our 69th, and I think many people would concede that that's probably enough for one year.

Well, okay, fans probably wouldn't. But I'm sure the players would think that it was, not to mention the backroom staff and the groundstaff and the people in the ticket office and the countless others who must be looking forward to their holiday with extra zeal this summer.

Yet, whisper it, but there's a possibility that we'll need to play another game. If, on Sunday, Arsenal beat Newcastle 2-1 and we draw 0-0 with Everton (or any other combination of results to the same mathematical effect), we'll find ourselves exactly in a tie with Arsenal for third place - on points, goals scored and goals conceded.

Now, of course, you'll be well aware that we did the double over Arsenal in the Premier League this season, winning 2-1 at their ground and 2-1 at hours, for an aggregate score of 4-2. But that doesn't matter as far as the authorities are concerned. The rules state that, in the event of third and fourth places being tied, the clubs must play-off against each other - the prize at stake being automatic qualification for the Champions League group stage, rather than via the third qualifying round, which is probably a prize worth splitting hairs over.

There's one obvious resolution to this potentially tiresome scenario, of course. A handsome win over Everton - or even a squeaky one, with a 93rd-minute header from 'One Goal' - completely removes the debate from the table.

However, let's say the statisticians prevail and we do, indeed, end up entirely level with Arsenal in all categories (apart from in the 'having already beaten them twice' category, obviously). A play-off would require a neutral stadium. Which one, then?

My choice would be White Hart Lane. The only appropriate place, surely, to decide where this season's Champions League places ultimately go. And we'd want to make a fair share of the tickets available to the home supporters, too, wouldn't we? Let's share the feeling.