Pat Nevin: Tipping the balance

Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin has his say on events at Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday that brought to a close an eventful round of Premier League fixtures, and he knows what is needed this coming weekend…

The Easter weekend promised so much for Chelsea. Cruising along to the game in the warm early evening sun, bedecked in short-sleeve shirts and with comfort in the knowledge that Spurs, Manchester United and even Arsenal had all helpfully shot themselves in their proverbial feet, it was understandable that our Chelsea hats were set at a jaunty angle.

Now and again you can almost relax into watching a game, but that feeling lasted all of eight minutes. It is hard to say a side scored against the run of play that early on, but Chelsea were so dominant that it was a complete shock.

So the laid-back mode was replaced by tension, excitement, celebration and then exasperation. The word to sum up the entire evening in the end was simple and obvious, it was frustration. To let slip such a golden opportunity was painful but there was that nagging feeling throughout the entire second half that you pretty much knew how it was going to pan out.

All the usual signs for this sort of torture were present, we had just shy of 80 per cent of the ball but there was an immovable mass of claret and blue bodies parked in front of our players inside the Burnley 18-yard line. The 22 shots to six was a surprise, I thought we had more than that, but the vast majority were blocked by the wall of defenders that was banked there throughout. The 10 corners to one statistic wasn’t a surprise, nor was the fact that we didn’t look much like scoring from any of ours while they of course scored from their only one, as well as from another set-piece.

The frustration boiled over in the end but it wasn’t about their defensive tactics, instead the fact that Burnley were able to waste so much time and disrupt the play so completely during that second half without punishment. This is not a complaint against Burnley or indeed Sean Dyche, they have to do whatever they must to stay in the league. As long as the referee allows it and it is within the rules, even if you stretch them to breaking point, then his players are entitled to scrap tooth and nail for the point they needed to stay up.

Sean Dyche himself, who I respect and like, must have had real difficulty suppressing a laugh when he said afterwards his team was NOT trying to waste time, when it was actually a masterclass in that particular dark art.

'If I hadn’t been busy tearing the remnants of my hair out and screaming at the officials, I might even have smirked at the comment.'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

The real frustration was of course that the referee and his officials were buying it all. They fell for it hook, line and sinker and didn’t do anywhere near enough to stop the incessant rolling around and falling to the ground at every opportunity. The emotions of the Chelsea fans, the players and those on the bench boiled over purely because those antics were allowed to destroy the latter part of the game, just when we were trying to build up a head of steam.

The referee pointed at his watch and intimated he would add time on, but even though five minutes came up on the board, with those injuries, apparent cramps and general mucking about, Burnley managed to ensure there were only just over four minutes of football in the final 11 minutes that was ‘played’. I timed it and the time they actually spent lying down injured during the second half was over seven minutes, that is before you take account of substitutions, the goalkeeper taking an eternity etc. etc.

Note to referees, when a player goes down with ‘cramp’ time and again you can play on, they are actually able to hobble off if they really need help. Unsurprisingly, each time a miracle recovery ensued after a player was led off by the physio. It was naïve on the part of the officials but then there was a naiveté by our lads letting it boil over in that limited injury time with a bit of pushing and shoving. That was precisely what the opposition wanted to run the clock down at that moment, so another one minute 43 seconds without play.

The other complaint could be that we obviously didn’t defend well enough when the opposition did get up the field now and again in the first half. When you add the goals shipped at home against Slavia Prague, that made it four goals lost in about an hour’s play at the Bridge. That is miles away from how we have defended for most of the season.

The other frustration with our part is the slower play in sections of the second half. There were a very few occasions when we could break forward as Burnley rarely ventured beyond the halfway line, but even those few breaks ground to a halt when our transition play wasn’t blisteringly fast. As soon as the Burnley fortifications were in place once more and their players got back then the initial problems returned, there was absolutely no space to exploit. At this point in the game we also definitely missed N’Golo Kante and his ability to win the ball back in unusually high areas

Still there is no point in howling at the moon, Manchester City face this dilemma every week and somehow they usually find a way through. It does drive you slightly mad however that once again it is the tiny differences that colour the world view of a football club. Had we got another goal, one that you must say we deserved in terms of possession and a willingness to actually attack unlike the opposition, then it would have looked like a fantastic week. Through to the semi-finals of the Europa league and with the aforementioned slip-ups by the other top-four contenders as well, we would have been set fair in the Premier League.

It is worth mentioning that the win over Slavia Prague should not be overlooked. Yes, we would expect to beat them but they were a far better football side than anyone else we have faced in the Europa this season.

It is all secondary as once again the battle for top four is in the balance and not tipping in our favour to be honest right at this moment. It makes the game against Manchester United crucial. At home, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are a different proposition but depending on tonight’s result against Manchester City, we could basically knock them out of the equation. Then it would be three into two, but sadly as all you mathematicians out here know, that still doesn’t go.

The upside is that Arsenal have three out of four of their games away from home, so there is still a great chance, but a win for us against United is now a must.

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