Pat Nevin: Nothing settled yet
column Tue 27 Feb 2018
It is the ‘monumental’ contest for top-four places that Chelsea legend Pat Nevin writes about in this week’s column, as he considers the Blues’ steadily improving performances…
This has been a hugely frustrating few days for anyone involved with or who supports Chelsea. Taking on Barcelona and then facing Manchester United at Old Trafford was always going to be tough, but it is even tougher to take when you feel you have been short-changed by Lady Luck. No one is saying those two teams were taken to the cleaners by Chelsea, but the narrative seems skewed by what was a couple of centimetres on four different occasions.
The first and second occasions were when Willian’s two shots hit the posts against Barcelona. With their keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen not even close to getting across to them, the woodwork saved him twice. It could easily have been 3-0 with hopes high for the second leg but instead Chelsea have a 1-1 scoreline to work with for the trip back over to Spain, when it finally happens. Doesn’t three weeks between the two legs feel like a very long time to you?
Considering the Jittery January, it was a fine performance but you could argue the first half against Manchester United was even better from our lads. Chelsea were without a doubt the better team in the first 45 minutes; Jose’s men rode their luck when once again a flailing keeper watched as the woodwork saved him. Alvaro Morata, back in the line-up, crashed a snap volley against the bar with De Gea helpless and once again the centimetres were conspiring against us. Alvaro might be tempted to take it personally, as later on he was of course onside when he scored ‘the equaliser’. Again it may have come down to tiny margins, this time they should have favoured us but once more they didn’t.
It is always something that grates with me, just how narratives are decided in the short term on tiny margins. Consider if Alvaro’s shot had hit the underside of the crossbar and gone in and the assistant referee had been able to use VAR when our striker put the ball in the net later on. How different the headlines and the storylines would have been about him, the team and indeed the club’s entire season so far.
Football is like that, I get it, but it is also worth considering a more panoramic view. Chelsea played well in both games, except for Willian who played brilliantly. Since Christmas there has been a 5-0 win, two 4-0s, two 3-0s and nine clean sheets. The performances have been steadily improving of late, so the problem is not the last two games or the general form but the two aberrations against Watford and Bournemouth. Against United away you can drop points in any season, but to slip up in such an un-Chelsea like fashion has been the real cause of us falling out of the top four.
Now there is a battle on until the end of the season, but I am not too downhearted because if the team plays the way it has over the past few games, then I suspect we will have a great chance of getting there.
It is still three from five at the top of the Premier League for the Champions league places; I think we accept that Man City might just get one of those top-four positions now! I will give Arsenal the benefit of the doubt in being in the chase but it is a long shot for them. So either United, Liverpool, Spurs or Chelsea will miss out with the obvious caveat about the possibility of one of us winning the Champions League and getting in that way.
Right at this moment I think all four teams are improving in their form and though six points seems a big spread, it isn’t when you consider Chelsea’s dropped points against Bournemouth and Watford which I mentioned above, and we aren’t the only ones. I was at Man United’s capitulation against Newcastle the other week and Spurs have won four of their past nine games. One of them was against Newport County in a replay and at the weekend it took a last-gasp winner at Palace to get the three points, so nothing is settled yet.
It is going to be a monumental run-in, but Chelsea now have to go on a run, hopefully starting with something, even a point against Man City at the weekend. After that it might come down to who has the nerve and who has the deepest squad. This could be where Liverpool, and to some extent Spurs, might struggle as the Champions League games start to take their toll.
Liverpool are hugely reliant on having Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all fit and firing. Those three haven’t really stopped scoring all season but it gets harder and now that Philippe Coutinho has gone, the players who might have to come in and cover for them are not such stellar names.
Similarly Spurs. When they don’t have the trio of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Hueng-Min Son playing they can find it much harder. They also have history such as at Stamford Bridge back in 2016 when they had the title in their sights, only to self-destruct.
There is about a quarter of the season to go and all of the top five are still in this season’s Champions League, so I very strongly doubt that the league placings will stay precisely as they are between now and the middle of May. It could well be that this is the hardest season ever, in terms of quality, to qualify for the Champions League via the Premier League placings, but even so I do not believe we are out of it and judging by the last few displays, I think the players feel the same.