GILES SMITH'S THURSDAY THOUGHTS
The wait to watch Chelsea again is nearly over and with one eye on summer manoeuvres, columnist Giles Smith takes stock…
We tend to take a pretty hard line on international breaks in this column. That pretty hard line is, essentially, that, in an ideal world, there wouldn't be any.
We resent the way that proper football has to keep stopping for them. We resent the way they disrupt the natural, time-honoured rhythm of the Premier League season without anyone offering so much as a single word of apology to us, the disappointed patrons, let alone to players and staff.
And we particularly resent the way that, every now and again, another one comes along and makes writing this column quite a bit more difficult than it needs to be.
In summary, we think there's a time for international breaks, and it's called June.
That said, even we, at our most resentful, couldn't help but get drawn in by certain aspects of the drama on offer in this latest football-free week. Not the friendly between England and Germany, I have to say, which seemed to me like a whole lot of noise about nothing very much, and, indeed, scant reason to postpone 'I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here!' for a night; but definitely by Sweden v. Portugal, in the second leg of the World Cup play-offs, which was available to watch at the same time that night on Sky Sports.
On that Tuesday morning, I was explaining my proposed choice of viewing to a sceptical friend, who was - mistakenly, in my opinion - intending to watch the England game, and I was pointing out that the match in Stockholm (which stood at 1-0 to Portugal after the first leg) had the advantage of being a game with actual consequences.
'There's serious drama there,' I suggested. 'At the end of this one, either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic won't be going to the World Cup.'
My friend thought about this for a minute, and then asked, 'Is there any possible way they can both end up not going?'
Well, no, as it happened. Even so, I did watch the Sweden match, and the game did develop in all sorts of interesting ways - Ronaldo scoring, seemingly putting Ibrahimovic right out of it, but Ibrahimovic coming back, almost from nowhere, to score two goals of his own and even looking like adding the necessary third, only for Ronaldo to run up the other end and score, twice more. (Ronaldo is, it's clearly true to say, no particular friend of SW6 but I don't think any of us would argue with the proposition that he's quite a good player right now.)
And although it wasn't football, strictly speaking, by the definition I would generally be looking to use here, when the 90 minutes were up, it did feel like an evening quite well spent.
So maybe we have to put our hand up and concede that sometimes, just sometimes, this international business has its reason.
Not very often, though. And certainly not by comparison with the prospect of our match against the Hammers at Upton Park on Saturday. Now, if we're talking about games with a lot riding on them…
The last time there was football, we drew at home to West Brom, in circumstances that seemed to upset a few people - although, as we tried to point out in this space last week, a penalty's a penalty and it doesn't matter whether it's the first minute or the 96th.
However, those two dropped points led some people to suggest that, for once, an international break might have come at the right time - providing us all with an opportunity to go away for a while, catch our breaths, and then make a new start as if nothing slightly disappointing, and maybe even a touch embarrassing, had just happened.
It depends how you saw that weekend, though, in the broader analysis. True, we didn't beat West Brom, which we probably would have been hoping to and probably should have done. After all, the last time we only drew with West Brom at home, the game was played on Boxing Day, from one end of the village to the other, using a pig's bladder.
Nevertheless, Arsenal didn't get any points at all last week, and neither did Manchester City or Tottenham. So, actually, come Sunday night, we were one point better off in relation to the teams who are likely to be our closest rivals for top-four spots than we had been when the weekend started.
In other words, we actually gained ground by drawing with West Brom. So once again, the international break was an unnecessary and potentially harmful disruption to the gathering rhythm of our season. There's no other way of looking at it.
I found the chelseafc.com article listing all the players of ours who are going to the World Cup next summer extremely useful. Obviously, given the astonishing numbers involved, it would have been quicker and simpler to write an article listing the players who weren't going. But that's just typical of the commitment you'll see at all levels of this website - an internet resource which always goes the extra mile to deliver and has never been interested in taking shortcuts, even when they have been so straightforwardly on offer.
As was graphically demonstrated by that thorough article, it's going to be hard keeping tabs on all our players, come the time. The Brazilians, the Belgians, the Spanish, the Nigerians, the English, the Ghanaian, the German… It's like the beginning of some impossibly complicated and probably, in the end, not very funny joke: 'There were these four Brazilians, right, and also these three Spaniards, as well as these three Englishmen… and they all went into a bar, OK, and…'
What's immediately clear is that it's going to take more than an article on a website to follow such an extensive array of favoured players through the tournament and stay in touch with their fortunes in the way we would obviously like to. Instead, it looks like being a job for a very sophisticated World Cup wallchart - possibly an unprecedentedly complex one, featuring various moving windows and fold-out flaps. And perhaps occupying one entire external wall of the house.
In fact, maybe it's going to take some kind of dedicated 'war room', like you see in the movies. Somewhere secluded, possibly underground, with bright overhead lamps and a large table at the centre of it, covered in maps of the relevant terrain. And on those maps, perhaps, would be a small wooden model representing each player which you would be able to push around with a long stick so that, at any time, in front of you, you had an accurate representation of the field of operations as it stood - where all the troops were, where the next front was likely to develop, what the best next move was likely to be, and so forth.
All of which is really just another way of stressing that Chelsea are going to be spectacularly well represented in Brazil. So maybe, in the end, the sacrifices that we have been obliged to make along the way, surrendering our weekends and getting precious little in the way of thanks for it, will eventually find their reward. Because however you slice it, Chelsea have got an extremely good chance of winning the World Cup this year - the best chance we have ever had. And that's something to look forward to, I guess. After the football stops.