Columnist

GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

With a win and a draw to contemplate from last night (a cup draw that is), columnist and season ticket holder Giles Smith discusses dominance, disruption, and a dutiful selection of future opponents…

It seemed somehow odd that a game in which our team had been so dominant and had played with such style and confidence, should nevertheless end in an old-fashioned, almighty, lump-kicking, nostalgia-inducing, back-to-the Seventies goal-mouth scramble in our own penalty area - and that, accordingly, those of us in the stands, who had spent a lot of the night purring to ourselves, should end up wincing nervously in our seats.

Yet such was the final passage of play last night before the referee blew the whistle and put an end to it. It only goes to show that you can dance and flip and create many moments of extreme beauty for virtually an entire 90 minutes and, in the absence of more than one goal, still not entirely eliminate the possibility that Bournemouth will scuff one in in the dying seconds and send the tie into the protracted agony of penalties.

‘Dominant’ is actually a mild term for what we witnessed last night, and especially – almost comically so – in the initial period, which mostly seemed to involve Willian taking corners. Did the ball even come into our half in that opening 15 minutes? I’m not sure it did, except possibly as the product of one or two of the deeper headed clearances.

It certainly didn’t come into our penalty area, which left our goalkeeper with little to do over the course of that phase. I don’t know whether Kepa is working on a novel at the moment, but, if so, that opening quarter of an hour would have been a very good time in which to clear his head, reflect quietly and maybe get a couple of chapters away.

In fact, left alone, radically unemployed, and entirely irrelevant to the play, Kepa momentarily cut a rather lonely figure out there and would have been a good person to talk to at that point about what it must feel like to be one of UEFA’s famous goal-line assistants.

Yet not long after that, he was flinging himself down low and fast to his left to stop Bournemouth taking the lead on a break. But, of course, that’s what marks the crucial distinction between being an excellent goalkeeper (of which there are a few) and being an excellent goalkeeper in a very good side (of which there are far fewer) - the requirement that, after a long spell of doing absolutely nothing, you should be able to go from nought to 60 in a split second.
 

It’s also what marks football - a sport in which possession and brilliance won’t necessarily amount to anything much in the absence of goals. The sight of Ruben Loftus-Cheek spinning around defenders and surging down the right-hand side, using the touchline as a kind of in-play SatNav, was undoubtedly one of last night’s numerous pleasures, along with the vision of him at one point bursting forwards from deep at warp-speed and covering half the length of the pitch in about five strides. (He had done something similar when he came on in the second half at Brighton on Sunday. He’s a disrupter. He causes problems.)

Yet the fact is, for all that possession and pressure and high-class creativity and the fact that Mateo Kovacic was a lit torch throughout, there was still no goal. In the end it needed Eden Hazard to come off the bench and provide one. That was his 10th goal this season, and he has also made nine assists. No other Premier League player has been the key to 19 goals this season, which is obviously marvellous. However, not meaning to be a nag or anything, but somebody else needs to step up and start helping out at some point – and soon, if at all possible.

Anyway, on to the draw for the semi-finals, which I experienced via the radio in the car on the way home, reported at second-hand by Radio 5 Live, but which apparently (for reasons which I am not sure we will ever be entirely clear about) was conducted by Peter Crouch, of Stoke City and England, and Piers Morgan, of ‘Good Morning Britain’ and Twitter.

Then again, when it comes to draws, it’s not necessarily about what a person has achieved in the game; it’s about whether they can handle the balls under pressure, with an expectant nation (or some of it) looking on. And all credit: Morgan may not have any medals to his name, and Crouch doesn’t have all that many more (by my calculation it’s two, as long as you get a medal for winning the Community Shield), but the pair of them promptly set us up with a double-header against Tottenham which, of the range of possible options at the time, was arguably the best one available to us.
 

Certainly (and even though we have recently beaten them, of course) the hardest opponent left in the hat was Manchester City. And Burton was the second worst option because you get no credit for beating them and, should you lose, it’s a stinging humiliation to last the rest of the season. In this context, Spurs was the right ball at the right time, so thank you for your expertise, Crouch and Morgan.

The other advantage of drawing Spurs at this moment in time, of course, is that half of the tie takes place on a neutral ground, assuming Tottenham’s new home continues to spring leaks at current rates. In that case, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to capitalise, although, for those of us who value our nerve-endings, more than one goal in the course of those 180 minutes would be nice.
 

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