So, here we are in October, chugging along happily in the Europa League, joint top of the Premier League, through to the fourth round of the esteemed Carabao Cup, the only unbeaten team in all competitions across all four divisions of English football and, apart from Juventus, the only unbeaten team in all competitions across Europe’s five biggest leagues.
All this while playing with a freedom and a commitment to panache that has left many observers ranking this side as possibly the most entertaining thing they have seen since series six of ‘Only Fools & Horses’, or since series four of ‘Frasier’, take your pick.
Accordingly, with all that going on in the background, it was hard not to raise an eyebrow last week when one heard everybody talking in advance about how Sunday’s meeting between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield (a meeting billed somewhat presumptuously by Sky Sports as ‘The Champions v The Challengers’) would no doubt yield the most entertaining game of the season – a game in which goals, fireworks and high-class theatricals were as good as guaranteed.
Result (almost inevitably): a tedious 0-0 draw with only the final whistle to recommend it. Give or take the moment when Riyad Mahrez put a penalty in the Irish Sea, I reckon I would have got more value and pleasure out of the afternoon if I had spent it de-furring the kettle.
Is it not perfectly possible, you wanted to ask – during this gale of pre-match hype, and certainly after it - that we have already seen the season’s most entertaining game, and that it was Chelsea v Liverpool? And is it not even more possible that the season’s most entertaining game is yet to come but that it will involve Chelsea? Just putting the thought out there.
Let’s note, after all, that on the very day that Liverpool and City were grinding out their war of attrition, our team were demonstrating themselves to be the kind of side that, leading 2-0 away at Southampton, and with the game already in time-added on, casually puts 31 passes together and scores a third.
This would have been a good few days to sit back contentedly, then, and spend the tiresome international break feeling, if not smug (because that would be ugly), then at least very heartened by the way things have been panning out. Except, of course, portions of the news media have been doing their best to dishearten us by choosing this very moment to raise the question of whether Eden Hazard might leave for Real Madrid at the end of his contract.
Really? Are we going to worry about this now? Call me a hopelessly blinkered short-termist, but I find the question of what Eden Hazard might do in six months, loaded with emotion though it is, significantly lower on my agenda at this point than the question of what Eden Hazard might do against Manchester United in just over a week’s time - and then, beyond that, what he might do to a large number of other teams in the four competitions available to us between now and next May. It may seem a slightly old-fashioned thing to say, but the best part of a whole season is a long time in football, and it’s always a shame to spoil the present by fretting about the future.
Still, if anyone does find themselves lying awake at night and worrying about this matter, as the news media clearly intend us to do, there is one big, over-arching principle that it might be helpful to bear in mind. It’s a cliché, yes – but the reason it’s a cliché is that it’s true: namely that, in the end, however great he may be, and however much one may love him, no player is bigger than his club. Except in the MLS, of course, where almost every player you have heard of is bigger than his club.
While we’re talking about Eden Hazard, though, I need to return to the subject of his penalty-taking. I’ve written in this space before about how anxious I tend to be made by his stand-and-strike approach, which always looks a bit precarious to me. I’ve gone so far as to say that I sometimes wish he would take a step or two – something more like a conventional run-up, just for the sake of my nerves.
Not any more. I’ve changed my feelings about it completely after reading an interview in which Neil Etheridge, the Cardiff goalkeeper, talked about the problems he experienced when facing a Hazard penalty. Etheridge (as you may have been unsettlingly aware at the time) has stopped penalties this season against Newcastle and Bournemouth, and was on a hat-trick of penalty saves at the point at which Hazard stood 12 yards away from him at Stamford Bridge a couple of Saturdays ago.
But Hazard, of course, scored and ended that run and, as Etheridge recalled it, it had a lot to do with that snapshot technique. Etheridge explained how, with Hazard standing there, right on top of the ball, he had nothing to go on, no movement to read, no time to think: it was just whistle, bang, goal. Life came on him fast.
So now I totally get it. Don’t mind me, then, Eden. On you go. Something for Riyad Mahrez to have a think about, too.