Pat Nevin: You can make chances
column Tue 13 Mar 2018
With the build-up to Barcelona gathering pace, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin considers the Blues’ most recent outing and the finely poised Champions League tie…
When you are a football fan, a lot depends on whether you are a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person. Players haven’t got an option, they simply must be positive as a negative outlook more often than not leads to a negative outcome in sport. So let’s say these next three games are something to be savoured instead of feared. Barcelona and Leicester away in the remaining cup competitions and then the crucial match up against Spurs in the Premier League will absolutely define the season. Well until the next games in the cups if we get through I suppose.
What is interesting is that for all the recent stumbles, everything is still there to play for other than the Premier League title itself. Footballers being a positive bunch, our players will believe that even accepting the underdog status, there is still a decent chance to make this a glorious season even if others have written them off.
The game against Crystal Palace was one that simply had to deliver three points and anyone watching would have realised that game should have been settled long before the half-time whistle. Depending on your perspective, Chelsea were worryingly wasteful in front of goal or impressive in the amount of good, solid chances created. Very specifically, Olivier Giroud couldn’t get on the scoresheet however hard he tried and it would be easy to be hard on him, but his overall performance and the effect he had on the team shape was pretty damn good I thought.
He hit the post, had an attempt cleared off the line by a defender who knew the square root of nothing about it, and he also led the line precisely how a big striker should. He held the ball up, took care of at least a couple of defenders most of the time and he won his fair share in the air allowing others to get up the pitch in support. There was one moment in the second half from a long clearance downfield when he laid a ball on to Eden Hazard who almost scored. It was classic, old-school centre-forward work but it was something that we have been missing as an option for a little while.
That is the life of a striker though; he could easily have scored a couple and laid on a couple more. Then he would have been hogging the headlines instead of playing second fiddle to Willian once again. The Brazilian is in sparkling form still and he will almost certainly start against Barcelona, but I think Giroud has made a much better case than many might think after the weekend.
As usual at the Nou Camp, just like every other team we will not have the lion’s share of the possession. When we get it up front it is absolutely imperative we hold it, to be able to eke out some chances and to give the defence some respite as well. It always happens against Barca, they press you high up the field and if you try to play it out, it just needs one pass slightly off kilter and you are in trouble. See the first game at the Bridge for evidence of that.
So it may not always be the most pleasing on the eye, but realistically now and again, especially over there, you will need to be able to clear your lines and hit it long. If at that moment there is a big centre-forward capable of battling and holding the ball, it can make a huge difference. It can then allow the likes of Willian and Eden Hazard to join the attack and that is when we are at our most dangerous.
There is an important point in the midst of this however. You must be brave enough and good enough to keep possession when you get it. Just going for a long-ball hit-and-hope philosophy on its own would be a certain way to lose this tie.
I am sure many of us watched the Barcelona match at the weekend against Malaga hoping to see some more signs of how they might be overcome. In the end it was about as useful as them watching our game against Palace. It was a routine cruise to three points and nothing more. With a man advantage for over an hour they strolled through the evening and even allowed Lionel Messi a night off with his new born son.
Much more will have been learned from both managers from the first leg. Barcelona can still hold on to the ball for fun of course but clearly there are one or two areas where they can be got at. Willian’s performance overall and in particular his ability to get shots away, made it clear that even if you only have 30 or 40 per cent possession, you can still make opportunities. I also think that if you can get good-quality crosses in from a set piece or two that is another way to test Barcelona. Once again I suspect that Giroud or possibly Alvaro Morata might just be vital here.
When you get to this stage of the Champions League, the first thing you notice is that any weaknesses at all are taken advantage of viciously. The Andreas Christensen misplaced pass was one of very few errors in the entire 90-odd minutes in the first leg and look what happened. I was in Paris last week for Real Madrid’s visit to PSG and they forensically opened up the right-hand side of the French defence where the once brilliant but now almost 35-year-old Dani Alves was stationed. One obvious weakness and it was curtains for the French side!
Spurs eventual defeat back in London against Juventus was as much about tactical know how and experience as it was about the quality of players on either side. The Italian side’s system changes gave them the edge in the end; I just hope the tactical wisdom and game knowledge of their former manager Antonio Conte can make the difference in this one too.
I am slightly more hopeful now than I was before the first match, but then I am an ex-player, we always need to be positive under pressure.