Columnist

Pat Nevin: Now for something different

After a smooth start to the season and plenty to admire from a star player, attention begins to turn to European competition, including in Pat Nevin’s latest column…

Last week I finished this page with the sentence, ‘the quality gap between Eden Hazard and almost every other player on the planet is fairly wide and right now it seems to be growing’. That was before he notched his hat-trick against Cardiff City and Maurizio Sarri proclaimed he might just be the best in the business in Europe right now.

The gap between Messi or Ronaldo and the likes of Eden Hazard has always come down to goal-scoring ratios and to be fair, those two have phenomenal numbers year in year out. Over their careers it is mind-boggling, Messi has over 620 goals in 770 appearances and Ronaldo has 660 in just over 900 appearances. There have been long periods when they have both been getting more than a goal a game. In fact Ronaldo’s entire Real Madrid career averaged well over a goal every game. These are extraordinary numbers.

The point with both of those stars is that they went into overdrive in the mid points of their careers in terms of goals scored, and you just wonder if Eden is about to hit a similar purple patch. Five goals already this season for Chelsea, with a couple for Belgium thrown in too and he is already getting close to double figures. We haven’t even reached October yet and that is very exciting.

Obviously the style of the manager and the system of the team suits him perfectly, but alongside his own personal progression it appears to be the freedom he has been given that has helped as much as anything.

There are games when the team goes behind and you think, ‘Oh dear, it could be one of those days’, but Saturday just didn’t feel like that, even when Sol Bamba scored the opener for the visitors. There is such confidence that there will be plenty of Chelsea possession, loads of attacks, a plethora of chances, there will also be Eden Hazard and as such, the likelihood of goals as the game progresses. It never even got close to the concerning stage.

In fact far-from-boring though it is, there has been a little bit of predictability creeping into the season. Hazard is brilliant each week, we keep the ball with metronomic precision until the opposition switches off and we then punish them mercilessly. I am sure this will not last all season and there are some teams who will manage to mess with the style for periods, but a change is already feeling that it will be as good as a rest. So roll on the Europa League and the visit to PAOK Salonika.

This should be a totally different tie in just about every way; obviously being in Greece makes it totally different for a start regarding the style and the atmosphere. Personally I have an enduring love affair with that country and visit at least once every year to the mainland or one of its islands. The climate, the food and most importantly the people are fabulous. They are also hugely passionate about their football and the visit of the Blues to the east coast will be highly welcomed.

It will also be a welcome chance of a start for many players who understandably can’t get near the team just now. Gary Cahill, Andreas Christensen, Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Emerson Palmieri, Davide Zappacosta and others could be in the form of their lives right now, but it makes no odds, the current team is flying and there is no obvious need to change it. Ethan Ampadu like the others must be itching for a game so this is surely a chance to get most, if not all of them some serious competitive football. It is in no way devaluing the competition if we make those changes because the standard of the players who might come in are clearly top-level Premier League with absolutely no exceptions.
 

This might actually be the hardest game in the group stage of the Europa League for us, so it would be great to get the right result on Thursday. It also helps the psychology of those who aren’t starting every week in the Premier League. Play well and get a win here and you know the manager will keep you at the forefront of his mind.

The flip side is the negative psychology if you lose and not only do you feel even further away from the team flying in the domestic league, but each individual would think, ‘Well that’s great, I get a chance but then I don’t have Eden Hazard to bail us out (if indeed he doesn’t start)’.

If Sarri does play a vastly changed side, will they all be match fit? They will be fit enough to get through the game undoubtedly, but when you haven’t been playing every game there is always just that five or 10 per cent missing that weekly match football gives you.

There is also the ‘Sarri-ball’ style which you suspect the team will be asked to play. It seems easy enough, but if it really was then wouldn’t every team in the Premier League be playing like that? If Jorginho doesn’t start, who plays the pivotal controlling role in midfield to that level and in that particular style? The likes of Cesc Fabregas could do it easily and there are others too, but they might feel they are being asked to mimic the style of another player. That is not always ideal in the ego department.

The questions keep coming if you do not win and that is one of the reasons why a draw at least is vital. It is not necessarily vital for qualification as I am pretty confident on that score over the six games, but for the feelgood factor around the entire club and specifically for the players who are currently looking in hungrily from the side lines, I really think a good result is crucial.

So whatever the manager decides to do will be interesting but unlike some English clubs in the past and possibly even in the present, I do not expect Chelsea to show this completion any lack of respect. It has obviously got the juicy carrot of Champions League football for the winners as well but it is the positive effect that it can have on the players that most interests me right now.

Maybe just to be nice to them, we should put Eden on the bench at least, just in case. After all, he is fairly capable of changing a game quickly and he has to keep his scoring numbers up as well.

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