Did you call it? You’re shrewder than me, then. I didn’t call it at all. Not for a moment, going in, did I think that last Saturday would end with ‘One Step Beyond.’
On the contrary, call me drastically short of faith and feeble of liver, but I thought a defence that had looked oddly cardboard against Wolves in midweek would suffer quite badly in the face of the undefeated, scoring-for-laughs title favourites, and that we would all leave with a grim lesson learned and tightly clutching the small nugget of consolation that at least we hadn’t permitted Liverpool to go top of the table.
Wrong. Quite wrong. What we were privileged to witness last weekend was the performance of the season in the match of the season, culminating inexorably in a ceremonial spin for the unofficial victory anthem of Chelsea FC and random acts of bouncing, and at that exact, joyous moment, on the final whistle, the question of whether Liverpool were up, down, or nowhere at all couldn’t have been of less interest if it had been on page 517 of Theresa May’s draft EU Withdrawal Agreement.
Monumental shifts were put in team-wide, to the point where it seems almost pernicious to pick some out and not others, but even so… what about Cesar Azpilicueta? If players earned Nectar points, Dave would be picking up his entire Christmas supermarket shop for nothing on the rewards accrued by Saturday’s performance alone.
Then there was the immensity of David Luiz, whose headed game-clincher involved a twisting leap not commonly seen beyond the salmon rivers of Alaska during the spawning season, and whose perfect 70-yard pass in the build-up to the opening goal was the kind of thing that would normally involve a major film studio and several hundred thousand dollars’-worth of CGI.
And then there was Mateo Kovacic, who can do little wrong in the estimation of this column. I appreciate that there are dissenters from this view, and also that the motor which drove Kovacic through the season’s first games, and had people confusing him on the pitch with Eden Hazard, has quietened somewhat more recently. But he is hardly alone in that. Plus, on a style level, call me trivial, but I’ve always had an instant soft spot for players who play while gripping onto the cuffs of their shirt sleeves. (Players were inclined to do the cuff-holding thing much more often before the invention of gloves.)
Anyway, in the passage of play I keep thinking about from last Saturday, Kovacic, out wide on the touchline with his back to the pitch, spins and rears between two City players, like a moped dinking through thick traffic, only to push the ball a little bit ahead of himself. This means that, in order to retain it, he has to dive in ahead of a retreating Mahrez. Except that Kovacic doesn’t just dive in and retain it – he somehow converts the retrieving lunge into a tidy pass, inside to Jorghino.
But then (and this is, in some ways, the great bit), at exactly the moment most of us would have awarded ourselves a quick break in order to catch our breath and maybe take a round of applause from an appreciative audience alongside in the Family Section, Kovacic is up and on his feet and stepping sideways into space ready to receive the ball again if Jorginho needs him.
This was display-reel stuff – and emblematic, it seemed to me, of a performance which linked back to, and advanced upon, the performances seen when the season opened. It was different from those first games because, this being City, large patches of the game had to be played in the absence of the ball. But it had that same sense of effort being doubled and then re-doubled – that constant level of high-energy application that made the initial games of the season such a dizzying, high-skill, gold-star entertainment-fest but which, for whatever reason, had fallen away by the time the team reached Wolverhampton.
Of course, the challenge that confronts the team now may be one of football’s most intractable ones: finding that level when it’s Wolves – or, more importantly at this point, when it’s Brighton away on Sunday. But let’s see.
Meanwhile there’s this evening’s tea-time appointment in Budapest – which would be the definition of a match with nothing riding on it, if we didn’t know deep down that there is no such thing. Tuesday kindly delivered a perfect night for English clubs in the Europa League – in the sense that the threat (very real for a long time) that both Liverpool and Tottenham would land up in the competition was, in both cases, dramatically averted.
I think we can all feel very relieved about that. Up here in football’s First Class cabin and cruising along nicely on a journey which we quietly hope will eventually take us all the way to Baku (extremely nice in the spring, I’m told) and a sixth European trophy, we hardly wanted that pair coming in, stuffing up the overhead lockers and putting their feet all over the seats. It’s bad enough having Arsenal on board.