It’s still very early days, of course, but I’m getting the impression that my relationship with VAR is going to be a hot and cold one, depending very much on the circumstances.
Which would make it just like, I suppose, my relationship with penalty shoot-outs. Basically, probably in common with you, I’m all in favour of penalty shoot-outs (supreme test of nerve, unparalleled drama) if we’re talking about the one against Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semi-final this season. I’m completely against them, however, if we’re talking about the more recent one against Manchester City (absolute lottery, ridiculous way to settle a football match).
Similarly, at some moment in the future when VAR intervenes to spare us from a narrowly offside goal in a crunch Premier League game with implications for positions at the top of the table, I’ll definitely be standing up to applaud a very obvious and long overdue application of the technology in the service of greater justice. I mean, if it’s available, you’ve got to use it, haven’t you?
If, on the other hand, VAR is calling for a penalty in injury time because a desperate last-gasp pot shot has hit a defender’s elbow on its way into Row Y and, as a consequence, Manchester United are advancing into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, then I’m going to be regarding the system as a completely unnecessary and ruinous imposition and possibly even accusing it of playing a part in the death of football.
Of course, if you and I are going to get the chance to blow hot and cold about VAR in the near future, our team will have to beat Dynamo Kiev, starting tonight, and then carry on to the Europa League final, UEFA having decided to introduce video reviewing into this competition for that match alone this season. In the Champions League, of course, they introduced it this month for the knock-out stages, hurrying the date forward as if in response to a perceived emergency in the matter of marginal rulings, to which they felt VAR had better bring its clarity sooner rather than later.
Note, however, that as well as the United incident, this was also the week that VAR took a four-minute look at an Ajax goal against Real Madrid, revealed that the ball went out of play during the build-up, but allowed the goal to stand anyway. So much for emergency clarity, then. Again, one has to insist that these are very early days. But VAR seems set to give us as much, if not more, to feel dissatisfied and vexed about as referees and assistants have been giving us all these years with their naked eyes.
Anyway, back on planet earth, it was once again flattering to find our game against Fulham packaged up as part of a ‘big weekend of derbies’, pitched among other local turf wars including Everton v Liverpool and Spurs v Arsenal.
I mean, obviously, it’s true: we do live round the corner from each other and share a borough. At the same time… well, I guess the question one always ends up asking oneself is: can it properly count as a fully-fledged rivalry if one of the teams doesn’t really notice?
Still, what might have looked like a temptingly easy three points from badly struggling opposition automatically became an altogether different proposition when Fulham inconveniently off-loaded Claudio Ranieri just before the game. The last time you want to be meeting a badly struggling opponent is when they have just replaced their manager, a move which is always going to focus a few minds and have a galvanising effect, or else what’s the point? So this was a hard-won victory in unexpectedly toughened circumstances.
And now a win in our game in hand would put us in fourth place in what is plausibly becoming, thanks to Spurs’ ongoing slide, a battle between four sides for two available slots rather a battle between three sides for just one. So we may not after all need to win the Europa League in order to be in the Champions League next season. But it wouldn’t be a bad move, insurance-wise. Just saying.
Speaking of games at the end of the season, I was reading again this week about this year’s Soccer Aid match being played here at Stamford Bridge – a major breakthrough for Robbie Williams’s noble annual charity initiative and a mark of how far that project has come since its inception all the way back in 2006. The annual televised head-to-head between England and a Rest of the World XI has been held at Old Trafford in recent times, and before that at Wembley, but in June this landmark fund-raising occasion finally gets a chance to occupy the stage in one of the true theatres of football.
This seems like a popular and appropriate move, and also a sensible one all round. As well as offering a superior cauldron-style big-game atmosphere and a tangible sense of history, Stamford Bridge is also considerably less far for Wandsworth-based Gordon Ramsay (if selected) to travel in order to have his achilles tendon reduced to ribbons by a reckless ‘reducer’ from Teddy Sheringham. The filthy challenge from the former Spurs player which put the irascible TV chef on a stretcher in 2012 has gone down in charity match folklore. Could the Bridge be the magnificent backdrop to similarly memorable scenes in June? Here’s hoping.