GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

Posted on: Thu 19 Sep 2013

Columnist and Chelsea season ticket holder Giles Smith was tuned-up and ready for the new European campaign before last night's game, and he is settled too for the long game…


The headlines this morning inevitably suggest doom and despair, as if what we witnessed at the Bridge last night was the arrival of at least two, and possibly three, of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The tone on the radio phone-in I had on in the car on the way home was pretty similar.

Whereas you could say that what we witnessed was a match featuring, it must be said, a fair bit of bluntness up front, but nevertheless also a match lit up for an hour or so by the brilliance of Willian, and in which Oscar smacked the bar for what would have been 2-0 in the second half, only for our defence to concede a well-constructed equaliser and then accidentally let someone get away at the near post on a late corner.

Do the Apocalyptic horses really ride in for a slip-up against a rather classy Swiss side (the strongest other team in our group, I would suggest) in September, in the opening match of the Champions League group stage? At this point of the season, those horses are still firmly enclosed in the paddock, surely, with their heads stuffed in bags of oats.

But that's the unhelpful nature of the heat that's currently under football, of course, when, no matter how early it is in the year, nor how early it is in the lifetime of your freshly assembled squad, you are only ever one poorly defended set-piece away from a crisis - and two consecutive iffy results from a full-blown, pants-on-fire, rip-it-up-and-start-again panic.

Strange, too, how pretty much everyone agrees that this is a club which now needs to spend a little time settling down and building something, after the fast-track up-scaling of recent years. And yet these are the same people who start screaming with impatience at the first glimpse of the scaffolding going up.

As the manager has pointed out, you can't make an omelette, or, indeed, any other egg-based culinary construction, without breaking the eggs. And one could add that you can't make a decent and ultimately competitive team without occasionally losing at home to Basel in slightly unfortunate circumstances in the Champions League group stages.

In many ways, it's Fulham I feel most sorry for. Clearly a side as packed with talent and potential as ours can't endure frustrations like the ones at Goodison Park last week, and those at home last night, without a kind of pressure building up behind the dam - a dam which must burst at some point. Someone will be made to pay for all that frustration, for all that thwarted creativity in the final third, and I don't think it would surprise anyone if it was our poor, innocent neighbours on Saturday evening in the 5.30 Premier League kick-off.

And, of course, in the event that that happens, we'll want to insist that it was nothing personal - that it was just one of those freaks of scheduling and that Fulham just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you know how chippy the neighbours can be. I bet they won't believe us.

Going into a new Champions League campaign, there are always a few adaptations you have to make - a few adjustments of your expectations, particularly regarding the standard of the refereeing, which, as we know from long and bitter experience of Europe's elite competition, is generally confusing, at best.

The worry, always, is that all will seem to be going well for your side, and then you'll get some entirely inexplicable decision, perhaps regarding a shot that didn't actually cross the line, or maybe involving a number of stonewall penalty decisions ungiven late in a game, or possibly regarding a sending-off at a critical moment for one of your key personnel. And then, in one baffling moment, all your good work gets undone.

Fortunately this year I had taken the precaution of re-acclimatising myself to Champions League conditions 24 hours in advance by watching Manchester United's Tuesday night match against Bayer Leverkusen on television. Which is why, last night, when Frank Lampard had a shot heavily deflected past the right-hand post in the first half and nobody gave a corner, I was kind of ready for it. I was already, if you like, in Champions League mode.

In the first half of the United game, after all, with the game evenly balanced, Wayne Rooney was allowed to score a goal while his team-mate Valencia was actually - and this is without exaggeration - standing on the goalkeeper. Neither the fact that the United player was in an indisputable offside position, nor the fact that he was indisputably committing a foul were enough to prevent the referee from awarding a goal.

At the time, no fewer than three people were being paid explicitly to prevent this sort of injustice happening. There was the referee, who was on the edge of the penalty area, perfectly placed to spot the foul and quite well placed to spot the offside, though that wouldn't automatically be his remit. And there was his touchline assistant, who was (inevitably) on the touchline and perfectly placed to spot the offside (and the foul).

Meanwhile the famously defunct 'goal-line assistant' stood a maximum of six feet away from the incident, with the best view in the house of both the foul and the offside. But sadly, as replays suggested, he didn't have his eye on the goal-line at the crucial moment, but was, rather, watching the game. Seriously: he was watching Rooney bring the ball down and shoot. If that's what those people come along for, why don't they just buy a ticket for a seat in the stand, like the rest of us? Or, better still, they could stay at home and watch the game on the television, where at least you get the benefit of replays and where it really is impossible to miss a clonking great offside and a massive foul when they happen simultaneously right under your nose.

I continued to watch those goalline officials going about their 'business' last night in our game, and I still can't make them out. Who are they? What is their purpose? What do they want? I don't think we should rule out the possibility that they might be aliens, planted there on Earth's goallines by a far-off galaxy that means us no good. At some point, one of them is going to give the pre-arranged signal - whatever it is - and the invasion will start. See if I'm not wrong.

Anyway, later in that United game, the hard-to-love Robin van Persie angrily disputed a perfectly good decision by the referee in a manner which brought him almost forehead-to-forehead with the official. It looked like a fight - or, at the very least, a headbutt - was going to break out at any minute Yet, for this manifest red-card offence, Van Persie was merely given a yellow and one of the referee's 'stern looks'. Again, the flexibility with the rules, even by the standards of these things at Old Trafford, beggared belief.

Anyway, it was all handy preparation for last night and for what will undoubtedly be the fairground ride of the next few months. For the Champions League is back. And it's still the toughest competition out there. And it's still not being refereed very well.