Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 14 Dec 2017
Columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith was pleased he did not have to wait long to see Chelsea back in points-securing form this week, and he is already counting the days to a fixture two months away…
Really, all you can ask of a team that mysteriously slips up in a groggy performance against West Ham on a cold and miserable Saturday lunchtime is that it comprehensively outplays Huddersfield in the tipping rain not many hours later. And, upliftingly, that’s exactly what happened, so thanks to everybody involved.
The setback in Stratford on Saturday was a proper downer. And it was no easier for coming so fast on the back of that other upsetting and not widely anticipated result the previous night – the eviction of Dennis Wise from the ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!’ campsite. As a former Chelsea player pulling on the coveted sleeping bag and taking part in ITV’s globally recognised bug-eating contest, Wise had the support of us all, I’m sure, as those first two weeks in Australia unfolded.
And things were looking promising for a while there, to the point where one had started to wonder whether he might even go all the way and add the King of the Jungle title to the two FA Cup medals and the Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup medals he won during a gratifyingly accomplished period here.
But alas – not entirely for the first time in his career, you would have to say – Wisey got involved in an argument that he could possibly have steered clear of and suffered the consequences in the last public phone-vote before the final weekend of play.
Still, by then he had outlasted Vanessa White from The Saturdays, Rebekah Vardy and Boris Johnson’s dad to finish sixth overall, which is outside the podium places but is not too shabby by any means and still qualifies you for Europe (I think). I suspect that, if you had offered Wisey that at the beginning of the series, he would have bitten your hand off – and that it would probably have tasted nicer than some of the things that he had to bite into over the course of his stay.
Anyway, first Wisey got the heave-ho and then Marco Arnautovic scored after six minutes and then we were strangely flat-footed about responding and suddenly the weekend was looking a bit dismal all round. Happily, though, there wasn’t much time to chew on it (‘I’m a Celebrity’-style or otherwise) or dwell on its repercussions - which were thankfully limited in any case, thanks to similar failings over the course of that weekend by Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Very shortly afterwards, the team was up in West Yorkshire, playing like a well-oiled dream, drawing level with Manchester United in second place in the league and convincing Huddersfield’s half-time guest that they were the strongest side Huddersfield have faced this season – a season in which, let’s not forget, Huddersfield have beaten Manchester United and caused Manchester City much discomfort (not unlike us, in fact).
So fixture congestion gets a bad name, and with fair reason from time to time, but in terms of healthily obliterating unwanted memories and encouraging us all to move on, change the story and generally make the sun come out again, I reckon there’s a lot to be said for it.
In between times, the other piece of business on this week’s agenda was the Champions League draw which will no doubt have inspired from a few of our kind a swift and simple reaction: ‘Not them again.’
And it’s true that there was a period when meetings between Chelsea and Barcelona in the knock-out phases of the Champions League seemed to be vying for a place on the list of life’s eternal certainties alongside death, taxes and Sir Cliff Richard.
Even so, on Monday a sigh of exasperation didn’t quite feel like the correct response, somehow. I mean, if you can’t get excited about the prospect of your team coming up against Barcelona… What’s that famous and insightful observation that Dr Johnson made, back in the 18th century? ‘When a man is tired of playing Barca, he is tired of being in the Champions League.’ There’s a lot of truth in that.
The draw will also have had some people from our parish clutching their faces and sending out the ‘scream’ emoji to the contents of their address books. A keen hope had lingered in some quarters that (within the context of the three options available to us), we would end up facing Besiktas. But I’ve got to say, that wasn’t a hope I especially shared. For one thing, it didn’t seem entirely wise to me to regard Besiktas as a soft option, rather than as a perfectly tough but less famous one.
And if you’re going to face a tough tie in Europe… well, to put if bluntly: who would you be more keen to see your team suppress over two legs, home and away: Neymar, Lionel Messi or Ryan Babel? And call me a sucker for celebrity, but I’ve got a feeling I would get a lot more, at an emotional level, out of seeing Neymar or Lionel Messi not get a kick than out of seeing Ryan Babel not get one. And, on account of the way the balls fell, Messi it is.
Result, then. I think we should be delighted, not least against a background of shrinking opportunities for big European nights against the top sides at Stamford Bridge. Consider the way the competition is already panning out: if we manage to get past our next opponents, we will find ourselves in a last-eight group shorn of either PSG or Bayern Munich, and, quite likely, on the law of averages, extensively padded with other English clubs, England being (in my opinion) rather over-represented in the Champions League this year.
And one doesn’t want to sound ungrateful, but does a team such as ours strive all season long for a place at Europe’s top table in order to benefit from another chance to take on Liverpool or Manchester United? That’s like booking a holiday in your own back garden, or going out to buy a car and coming back with a bike, and I’m not sure it was the founding motivation, either for them or for us.
One other thing to bear in mind about playing Barcelona in the Champions League: it didn’t work out too badly last time. That was 2012, as you will remember. When, as I also won’t need to remind you, we beat them and soon afterwards were lifting the trophy. Can’t wait.